The pending criminal case against Brent Luyster provides an opportunity for necessary discussions about issues surrounding the death penalty in Washington.
Many of those topics were explored recently in an article by Columbian reporter Jessica Prokop. The story focused on the financial costs of pursuing capital punishment — costs that, according to a Seattle University study, typically run about $1 million per case. And yet the social costs surrounding the death penalty are equally important as debate continues throughout the nation over the moral and philosophical dilemma engulfing capital punishment.
Gov. Jay Inslee already has weighed in with his opinion about these costs. In 2014, he implemented a moratorium on capital punishment in the state, saying he would offer a reprieve to those who have been sentenced to death but would not commute sentences. “Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee said at the time. “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.”
Certainly, there is room for debate surrounding capital punishment. There is room for discussion about inequity in how the punishment is handed out; in how laws vary from state to state; and in how there is the persistent possibility of executing somebody who, in truth, is innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted. But the fact is that Washington voters have approved the death penalty, establishing the state’s current capital punishment law in 1981. And the fact is that Inslee has a duty to carry out the laws of the state rather than unilaterally imposing his vision of fairness and equity.
The governor’s stance on the issue should not influence those in the office of the Clark County Prosecutor, who will decide whether or not to pursue the death penalty against Luyster. He has been charged with gunning down two friends on the porch of a rural Woodland home, then barging inside and shooting two women, one of whom died. Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said: “This is an issue that prosecutor offices statewide wrestle with. We are in a difficult position as prosecutors in this state where we have the death penalty that is continuously approved by voters. The law provides for that sentence in certain circumstances, but we also have, conversely, the governor’s position and also the knowledge that the Supreme Court has routinely reversed death-penalty decisions.”
It also is an issue that voters should again wrestle with. Last year, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys announced that it planned to push the Legislature to put a death-penalty referendum before voters. But no such measure is on this year’s ballot, leaving prosecutors to weigh a state law that passed a generation ago against the governor’s moratorium. In the meantime, taxpayers are left to weigh the cost of capital-punishment cases against the cost of incarcerating the most abhorrent criminals for the rest of their lives — a toll that runs about $36,000 a year for each death-row inmate.
In the long run, money should not be a significant factor in considering the death penalty. What is most important is the notion of justice and the equity with which it is handed out. Establishing and implementing a system that reflects our highest ideals and that engenders the trust of the public has a value that is priceless in a civilized society.
Those are issues that extend beyond the case of Brent Luyster and how the county should approach his prosecution. And they are issues that must be discussed by the public.