The Reach of the Death Penalty

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga visited Bellingham in late September to talk about his experience as an attorney for defendants facing the death penalty. He spoke at an educational event on "Death Penalty Law & Policy" sponsored by the ACLU-WA Whatcom County Chapter. He presented important perspectives that generally have been overlooked in public discussion of the death penalty.

How many people does an execution affect? Prior to hearing Mark Larrañaga’s insights into the vast reaches of the death penalty, I naturally assumed that the defendant, his or her family, the victim(s), and the victim’s family were the principle people affected by the death penalty. I never considered how deeply jurors, attorneys, and their families can be affected.

Years after a trial had come to an end, some jurors’ family members are brought to tears just talking about it. These persons are often so affected by the lengthy, emotionally straining process of a death penalty trial that they too often turn to substance abuse to help them cope. “He’s never been the same. He started hitting the bottle pretty hard when the trial ended,” one woman said of her husband’s experience as a juror. Mr. Larrañaga has become so keenly aware of how traumatizing a death penalty trial can be that in many of his cases he has requested that counselors be available to all involved parties after the trial is concluded.

Some people say that they support the death penalty because they believe “life without parole” leaves open a possibility for murderers to be released. However, Larrañaga pointed out that in Washington state, no one who has been convicted of Premeditated Aggravated First Degree Murder – the offense for which a defendant can become eligible for the death penalty – has ever been released.

Another effect of a death penalty trial is how it shifts society’s focus from the victims and their family to the defendant. Cal Brown’s appeal process went on for 19 years. Every time he filed an appeal or a personal restraint petition, the gruesome facts surrounding Holly Washa’s murder were dredged up again for her family to relive. Unfortunately, these facts only served as background information in articles that were about Mr. Brown and his case, not about Holly Washa or her family. In the words of the Schiebers whose daughter Shannon was murdered, “One tragedy of the death penalty is that it turns society’s perspective away from the victim and creates an outpouring of support for those who have perpetrated a crime. For us, the death penalty is not the way to honor our daughter’s life.”

Lastly, recent actions of employees within various Departments of Corrections (DOC) speak to a social shift away from supporting the death penalty. The former medical director for the Washington State DOC recently resigned because of an ethical conflict with his role in supervising those who carry out executions. Additionally in Washington, in 2009 four people resigned as administrators of lethal injections fearing their identities would be revealed in the ongoing case over whether lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Nationwide, former prison guards are coming forward to speak about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of participating in executions. Former wardens are also coming forward about rampant drug and alcohol abuse among colleagues trying to cope with the trauma of putting people to death.

Judging by what Mr. Larrañaga has to say, there is no “best” or “most effective” way to deal with the emotional toll an involvement in a death penalty case can cause. It seems that there is really only one cure: replacing the death penalty with life without parole. It is the only sensible way to prevent needless suffering for too many people.