Originally published September 22, 2011 at 3:50 PM | Page modified September 22, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

The death penalty: Are we getting it right?

There were 46 executions in the U.S. last year — including one in Washington state — a 50 percent drop since 1999. But the question isn't how much or how little the death penalty is used that should determine whether American continues to employ its ultimate punishment. It's whether we're getting it right every time.

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The idea of Georgia inmate Troy Davis lying on a gurney in an agonizing wait for nine justices hundreds of miles away to resolve in a single-sentence statement that he should in fact die — even if innocent — should be enough to give pause to the most ardent supporters of the death penalty.

Davis was executed for the killing of a police officer 22 years ago, despite scant forensic evidence and recantations over the years of most of the eyewitnesses. Even some of the jurors said they've changed their minds about his guilt.

"Casey Anthony is found not guilty by reasonable doubt but Troy Davis is executed despite tremendous and widespread doubt," was one of the most salient tweets during an evening in which Troy Davis was the biggest topic on Twitter.

This execution wasn't justice. My sympathies to the family of Officer Mark MacPhail, but this wasn't even the retribution they were seeking.

It is these kinds of miscarriages of justice that strengthen calls for abolishing the death penalty.

The New York Times editorial page said Davis was an example that "across the country, the legal process for the death penalty has shown itself to be discriminatory, unjust and incapable of being fixed."

That depends on where you live. In Washington state, the death penalty is carried out rarely and, so far, absent the racial disparities plaguing other states.

Included in the handful of executions since the state resumed the death penalty in the 1990s were Cal Coburn Brown, who raped, tortured and killed a 22-year-old woman, and Westley Alan Dodd, who kept a torture rack in his house and killed little boys.

Those were easy calls. The tougher calls rightly become life sentences.

Some states are drenched in blood, given how many people were wrongly sent to their deaths. Southern states, marked by racial and socioeconomic disparities in the justice system, ought to refrain from using the death penalty.

Where caution is warranted, states ought to do like Illinois: An alarming number of exonerations led then-Gov. George Ryan to empty death row.

But lumping all death-penalty states, or cases, together doesn't work for me or the two out of three Americans identified in a Gallup poll last year in support of the death penalty.

The same night Davis was put to death, an avowed white supremacist who killed a man by dragging him from the end of a truck — eventually decapitating him — was executed in Texas.

I'm not confused about that man's culpability or the appropriateness of the punishment.

King County currently has two active capital cases, including Christopher Monfort, accused of ambushing two Seattle police officers and killing one two years ago. In another case, two defendants are on trial for allegedly slaying six members of one defendant's family on Christmas Eve four years ago. In a third case, Conner Schierman was sentenced to death last year for killing a Kirkland family of four in 2006.

And now pro-death-penalty King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg must decide whether to seek the ultimate punishment against Louis Chen, a physician charged with stabbing his live-in partner more than 100 times and slashing to death their toddler son.

Washington's careful application of the death penalty has created a feasible pattern of horrific crime plus unquestionable guilt of perpetrator equals use of the ultimate punishment.

I'm even fine with the high costs of prosecuting such cases. When someone's life is on the line, no expense should be spared. But here's the lesson all of us death penalty supporters must take from Troy Davis' death: be certain every time. Or don't make the death penalty available at all.

If you believe that even with the 21st century's forensic and technological advances this is too high a threshold to meet, you're a vote for abolishing the death penalty.

Let's return to capital punishment as a rare option for the most heinous crimes; a punishment carried out not as a deterrent, but as a true punishment for those we're certain deserve it. Other-wise, as Davis said in his final words: "May God have mercy on our souls."

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is


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