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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Ridgway and the Death Penalty 

Even though Gary Ridgway is set to plead guilty to 48 murders related to the Green River Killer case, the state of Oregon, where 4 of the victims were found, are seriously considering charging Ridgway with those crimes and seeking the death penalty. So, 48 murders isn't enough to warrant a death sentence, but in another state, 4 somehow is?

Obviously, it's nowhere near as simple as that. Though I suspect that when push comes to shove, Oregon isn't going to buck the trend either. But that leads to the next question, already asked earlier: if the most "decorated" serial killer in history won't be put to death, what does that mean for capital punishment in general?

Frankly, it's just not a very viable option in criminal cases anymore. As DNA technology improves and older evidence samples can be tested several decades after the fact, more inmates are discovered to have been wrongfully convicted and are released from death row; former Illinois Governor George Ryan's blanket commuting of every death row inmate may not have been the most ideal solution, but with 138 exonerations nationwide and a spate of problems in Illinois (the Jeanine Nicarico and Lori Roscetti murders are perhaps the most notorious cases) every single sentence of death had become sufficiently tainted. As the number of wrongfully convicted continue to grow, and the number of states that take the death penalty off the books (or at least decommission it), the more likely it seems that it may become a relic of the past, current polls notwithstanding.

The other reason besides wrongful convictions is an issue of cost. The appeal process is lengthy and laborious, and thus drives up the expensesas compared to life imprisonment. No doubt this is one of the main reasons for Ridgway's impending plea bargain. Washington State likely feels it is simply not worth the expense of a long trial that would take many months, if not years, to fully unveil the case against him and rebut whatever challenges may come along with way. Never mind that the victims' grieving family members have waited this long for a resolution (never closure) and any delay would exacerbate matters unnecessarily.

Yet another factor that may have pushed towards a plea deal is to sweep allegations of incompetence under the rug, or at least attempt to do so. Ridgway had been suspected as the Green River killer for almost two decades, and there were far too many instances where he could have been apprehended but was not, where evidence was misplaced or not properly treated. Too much infighting and miscommunication hampered investigation's progress as well, and revisiting clues meant sifting through thousands of pages and a great many files; no easy task, certainly. In a way, it's amazing Ridgway was finally arrested; I wasn't the only one who thought there'd be no resolution. But how much of the "real story" will ever be revealed? No doubt there will be several writing books about the case; as mentioned before, Ann Rule is going to be one of them. I hope she gets to tell the definitive account but only if her publisher allows her several years to complete it.

Ultimately, what effect Ridgway's plea will have on the death penalty overall remains to be seen. Already there's a fledgling movement by Massachusets Governor Milt Romney to put the death sentence back on the books in that state, arguing that "advances in forensic science have made it possible to adopt a death-penalty system so reliable that innocents on death row can be made a thing of the past." Speaking as a forensic scientist (to be, anyway) that's a typically misinformed statement. DNA evidence is powerful, but its power lies in a) statistical measures and b) interpretation of the data. There are many, many complications that can affect how the data is interpreted and how much of a "match" can be made between an unknown sample and a known one. The probability is always higher for exclusion than it is for inclusion. One can never say "this is an absolute match," only that "there is a high probability of a match." It isn't just semantics talking either, as the debacle in the Harris County, TX (a state that's very death-penalty happy, but I shan't comment further on that) laboratory in the last year showed. Before taking measures to put a flawed statute back into circulation, it might not be a bad idea to see how many more wrongful convictions turn up. A process which, no doubt, will still be occurring for years to come.

The irony, if you will, is that Ridgway's status as a many-times-over serial murder seems as good a reason as any to use the death penalty. However, if Washington state won't do it, I don't know how useful it would be for Oregon to do so as well. Perhaps their reasoning lies in the following statement:

"The Washington County district attorney's [. . .] office told KATU it has played no roll (sic) in the negotiations with Gary Ridgway, in fact the they have never even been contacted by the Green River task force.

Politics at play? You be the judge.

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