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Originally published Friday, September 2, 2011 at 3:31 PM

Guest columnist

Death penalty has a place in King County, regardless of budget strife

Whether the death penalty should be sought in the worst murder cases has been questioned, given tight King County and state budgets. Guest columnist Reagan Dunn argues that the death penalty has a role that should not be compromised by tough economic times.

Special to The Times

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THE most important function of local government is to protect the public through enforcement of the rule of law. It is what separates a civil society from lawlessness, keeps our neighborhoods safe and establishes an orderly environment for commerce. That's why it is essential that we as a society have the death penalty as the ultimate punishment.

The application of criminal law in Washington state can range from minor offenses to the most heinous, and it is up to our legal system to use discretion in seeking punishment for those who harm fellow citizens. A determination to pursue the death penalty should be based on the severity of the crime and strength of the case, not on the financial health of county budgets. ["King County's death-penalty dilemma: Soaring cost worth it?" page one, Aug. 14].

The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst offenders, the murders that literally turn your stomach. That's why it is rarely sought as punishment.

In King County, there are only three death-penalty cases in the courts right now: Christopher Monfort, who allegedly ambushed and killed a police officer on Halloween night in 2009, and Michele Anderson and Joseph McEnroe, who allegedly shot and killed six members of a Carnation family, including two young children, on Christmas Eve in 2007. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg makes these decisions personally and with great care.

Death-penalty cases are expensive, and much is being made about the cost of trying these cases at a time when county budgets are tight. But it is the job of the prosecutor, who is entrusted with protecting the public by seeking punishment, to pursue the appropriate penalties under the law commensurate with the crime.

Pursuing appropriate penalties is not only important to public safety, it is necessary as a measure of justice for victims' families. What is our message to these families if we do not seek maximum punishment under the law? If your loved one had been killed when we had a good economy, we'd seek a tougher penalty? Our commitment to enforcing laws should not ebb and flow with government revenue.

State officials recognized the additional financial burden placed on county prosecutors who are pursuing death-penalty cases. But rather than tell prosecutors not to enforce the law, they set up the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Fund to assist in these prosecutions. Under this process, county prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs submit requests to the Washington State Office of Public Defense, which audits the requests and submits a recommendation to the Legislature.

This year, the Washington State Office of Public Defense submitted a $4.1 million request on behalf of King County. The amount King County received from the Legislature? Zero.

As a former federal prosecutor and former chairman of King County Council's Law, Justice, Health, and Human Services Committee, I understand the strain a bad economy places on government budgets. But we must prioritize spending — at the local and state level — in order to exercise fully the pursuit of justice in our court system.

The death penalty should remain on the table regardless of tight budgets because the safety of the public and the rights of victims' families demand no less.

Reagan Dunn is a member of the Metropolitan King County Council. He is a former federal prosecutor and senior counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice.

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