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A Republican argument to ban Washington’s death penalty

Rob McKenna called Gary Ridgway's life in prison sentence "a kind of hell." (AP)
LISTEN: Rob McKenna talks death penalty

Rob McKenna spent years grappling with his stance on the death penalty. But one seminal event in the former attorney general’s life cemented his view. It came with acceptance of the fate given to Gary Ridgway, Washington state’s most notorious killer.

“While I would have been very satisfied to see Garry Ridgway get the needle or the gallows for all the incredibly horrible things he did,” McKenna told KTTH’s Todd Herman. “I find myself satisfied with the idea now that he is rotting in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.”

“That’s a kind of hell,” he said. “I don’t find myself thinking, ‘God, justice wasn’t served because he’s still alive. I know he’s gonna die there and he’s gonna live a miserable existence until that point. And there’s some satisfaction in that.”

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Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a “bipartisan” agreement over eliminating the death penalty Monday. It came with the support of McKenna, a longtime public official and former Republican gubernatorial candidate. He told Herman about how his stance on the subject changed over the years, in part because of a “stalemate” within Washington’s criminal justice system and also because of Gary Ridgway.

Gary Ridgway and the death penalty

Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, was convicted of 48 separate murders that occurred in the ’80s and ’90s. He eventually confessed to nearly twice that many as part of a plea bargain to keep him off death row. McKenna said he supported the death penalty as a King County councilmember during the Ridgway investigation and prosecution. As attorney general, McKenna said he had two assistants who did nothing but handle appeals for individuals on death row — with at least one of those cases advancing up to the Supreme Court.

Despite the efforts, only one execution has been carried out since 2001 – Cal Coburn Brown in 2010 by lethal injection after spending 17 years on death row. Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on executions in 2014. There are currently eight people on death row in Washington.

“Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is a system that just doesn’t work anymore,” McKenna said. “We have essentially fought to stalemate.”

With that said, McKenna said he hears the counterpoints, including that eliminating the death penalty takes away a bargaining power of a prosecutor. He acknowledged that Ridgway presumably cooperated with the state by telling of other murders he committed to avoid the death sentence.

McKenna said evidence from both sides related to these issues should be debated in the public sphere. That debate includes ethical questions.

“Is it ethical to hold the death penalty over someone’s head to persuade them to take life without (parole)?” McKenna asked. “Let’s say you’re innocent as an accused suspect but you’re terrified that you are going to be put to death so yeah, you accept life without. There is no trial. The evidence doesn’t come out, etc. So what are the ethical questions there?”

Eliminating the death penalty also strips the wishes of some victim’s families. For example, Warren Clements, a Tacoma man who’s step-daughter was recently the victim of a gruesome murder. Clements told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that he favors the death penalty. The accused murderer in that case may face the death penalty.

McKenna, however, noted that not every victim feels that way and that the law can’t cherrypick the wishes of certain families.

“We don’t make these laws, and we don’t impose these sentences and carry out these sentences based on the wishes of the victim’s families,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t sound harsh … But nevertheless, this is society’s decision, it’s not something we do for the family. You see what I mean?”

“Because it’s the state that carries out the entire process of investigation, prosecution, conviction and then carrying out the sentence,” McKenna said. “So I think the family’s views should be taken into consideration but they can’t be the final word on the subject. We don’t do that for any criminal sentencing.”

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Although McKenna presented the death penalty bill alongside Ferguson and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, he doesn’t entirely agree with their stances. That includes a strong disagreement with Inslee’s notion during the press conference that no one should get the death penalty because Ridgeway didn’t.

“I disagree with that,” McKenna said. “At the same time, you have to look at the overall system and you have to look at all the cases, and not just the one case. We don’t make laws based on one case.”

“For me, it’s been a long, slow evolution and I think I take essentially a pragmatic view of this,” he said. “I look at the enormous cost involved and I look at the endless delays that are bad for the victim’s families, bad for moreover, for society and how we view our system of justice.”

McKenna said the proposed legislation could also be the impetus for putting the capital punishment matter to vote. While letting people vote isn’t specifically included in the bill, he said it does not have an emergency clause that would prevent it from being subject to a referendum vote. In other words, if the bill passes, if the voters feel strongly enough, they can gather signatures on a petition and send it to the ballot and let the voters decide. Legislators could also pass and attach a clause that would send it directly to the ballot, bypassing the end to get signatures on a ballot, he said.

“If the voters of this state voted against the repeal and in favor of keeping the death penalty, then I would say that’s good enough for me, that’s the final word,” McKenna said. “But I also think this is an issue that the legislators in Olympia ought to be taking up because of the practical issues involved here and the issues of justice and ethics.”

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