The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 3, No. 2
February 2015
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The False Promise of the Death Penalty  


Councilman Tim Burgess

Seattle City Council


Author's Note: Two high-profile death penalty trials are underway in King County Superior Court: the 2009 assassination of Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton and the 2007 Christmas Eve mass murders of three generations of the Anderson family in Carnation. Both crimes were horrific, senseless acts of hatred and violence that caused incredibly searing pain, suffering and loss for the victims' families, friends, neighbors and the broader community.
But, the death penalty delivers nothing more than a false promise.

     I was a Seattle police officer in the 1970s. I spent many nights in my patrol car doing exactly what Officer Brenton and his partner, Britt Sweeney, were doing when they were shot. As a Councilmember, I went to Harborview the night Officer Brenton died. I spoke briefly with Officer Sweeney. The targeted murder of Officer Brenton strikes a deep chord of grief within me. As a father of three and grandfather of two, the slaying of the Andersons does the same.


     I want swift and certain justice delivered to their killers, but the death penalty won't provide that swiftness or certainty.


     Some people believe they are safer because of the death penalty; they're not. 


     The death penalty does not deter homicides and does not make our communities safer. A review from the National Research Council concludes that no credible evidence exists to suggest that it does.

     Some people believe justice is better served by the death penalty; it's not. The pursuit of capital punishment delays final resolution for victims' families and communities, inflicting even further pain and suffering. Of the 9 current offenders on Washington's death row, an average of 17 years has passed since the year of their crime. Seventeen years! There is no swiftness or certainty in that reality.


     At the end of the long road of appeals, the majority of Washington's death row inmates have had their sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Spending millions of dollars and dragging victims' families through years and sometimes decades of uncertainty only to end up in the same place (a sentence of life without parole) is not a worthwhile exercise of justice. And moving faster is not a viable option; the appeals processes and protections exist for a very important reason: one hundred fifty innocent individuals and counting have been exonerated from death rows across the country. We make mistakes, but there's no room for error when it comes to administering the death penalty.


     Some people believe we administer the death penalty fairly; the evidence shows we do not. A University of Washington professor's analysis of Washington's aggravated first degree murder cases suggests the death penalty is applied disproportionately across Washington. Juries were 4.5 times more likely to impose a death sentence on a black defendant than on similarly situated white defendants.


     Why do I make these points now? It's certainly not to minimize the trauma, the grief and the pain experienced by those most closely connected to the tragic deaths of Officer Brenton and the Anderson family. I make these points now because these cases serve as examples of how the death penalty leaves us with missed opportunities for safer communities and a better justice system.


     In January, a report from Seattle University found that, on average, death penalty cases in Washington cost about 1.5 times more than other aggravated first-degree murder cases, including post-conviction incarceration costs. This amounts to more than $1 million per case in extra costs.


     The costs of the current King County cases have risen above $15 million. This is no trivial sum. $15 million could mean 30 more police officers patrolling our streets for 5 years. It could deliver to more than 3,000 families the support of the Nurse-Family Partnership, an early intervention program for first-time, low-income mothers and their babies that is proven to reduce involvement in the criminal justice system later in life. It could provide high-quality preschool for more than 1,300 children, another proven investment that reduces criminal behavior. It could enhance staffing on police "cold case" investigative teams, or provide stronger victim support and advocacy services.


     The death penalty does not strengthen or protect the women and men of our police departments, it will not deter future acts of violence or murder, it will not bring meaningful and positive change to our communities, and it cannot be administered both quickly and fairly. This is the false promise of the death penalty.


     Eighteen states have abolished capital punishment in favor of safe and just alternatives, including six in the last eight years. Governor Jay Inslee's moratorium on executions last year was an appropriate first step; let's go further and finish the job by abolishing the death penalty (read a letter from the Mayor, City Council and the City Attorney urging Seattle's representatives in Olympia to support safe and just alternatives). We'll save millions of dollars that could be used more effectively and we will achieve the type of justice we really deserve-swift, certain and fair.


Tim Burgess is a native of Seattle, Washington who has been involved in community affairs for forty-five years. He has worked as a journalist, policeman, global anti-poverty worker and business owner. He has served on the Seattle City Council since 2007. You can contact Mr. Burgess at

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)

     Lansing... Efforts are afoot in Michigan legislature to reinstitute the death penalty, although the state was the first to abolish the practice in 1847. The proposed changed would allow for the execution of anyone who was convicted for first-degree murder of a policeman. The main sponsor, Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), stated he introduced the bill because he promised a constitutent whose son was killed in the line of duty that he would try to amend the law. All attempts within the past sixteen years to change the law have failed.

     Richmond... A bill is working its way through the Virginia legislature that will keep most of the information related to executions from public view. One of the bill's main supporters is Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, a death penalty opponent!

Similar bills have passed across the country and are being litigated because they keep vital information about state-sponsored executions from the public. The laws are an attempt to shield drug compounding companies from legal action and public scrutiny. European drug companies no longer sell their products to states to use in executions. States are now experimenting with other drugs and do not want the public's oversight, especially if the drugs do not work properly. This type of legislation is just another attempt to mask a heinous practice and protect big business and government officials. 

     Basel, Switzerland... Midazolam, manufactured by Roche Pharmaceuticals, is one of the primary drugs used by states to execute individuals until the company stopped selling the drug for this purpose. Earlier this year the company issued its position on the nefarious use of its product:

"Roche is aware of the use of the benzodiazepine midazolam as part of a drug combination for executions under the death penalty in the U.S.


Roche did not supply midazolam for death penalty use and would not knowingly provide any of our medicines for this purpose. We support a worldwide ban on the death penalty.


Roche discovered midazolam in the 1970s as a treatment for acute seizures, moderate to severe insomnia, and for inducing sedation and amnesia before medical procedures. In 2004, Roche discontinued the manufacture and distribution of midazolam in the U.S. for business reasons during a re-evaluation of our product portfolio of medicines that are now available from generic manufacturers."


     Huntsville... Texas death row inmate Lester Bower's execution was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers his full appeal, including whether thirty years on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution. Bower maintains his innocence in the killing of four men, for which he was sentenced to die. Conflicting stories about what occurred on the day of the murders have arisen over the years. Bower, 67, is the longest serving inmate in the Texas penal system. He has faced potential execution on six different occasions during his three decades on death row. 


     Gainesville... Speaking at the University of Florida School of Law, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that he's convinced "that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished." Stevens based his conclusion on Columbia Law School professor James Liebman's book  The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution.


Professor Liebman's study found that faulty eyewitness accounts, poor police work, and inadequate legal representation resulted in an innocent man being executed. In addition to the book, the author has placed his finding on a website that outlines how an injustice can end in death.

   Coach Worked To Abolish The Death Penalty


     Dean Smith, the fourth most successful college coach in NCAA history with 879 wins, died on February 7. His family noted several years ago that he was suffering from a neurological disorder that affected his memory. He was 83.


     Smith became the head coach at the University of North Carolina in 1961 when the school was on an one year probation for recruiting violations. Having never been a head coach, Smith's first year at U.N.C. ended with a record of 8-9. By the end of the decade, however, Smith had the program back on track and his teams went to the Final Four three consecutive years. Smith won two national championships while coaching at Chapel Hill. He was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.

Dean Smith 


     While his exploits on the court are well documented, his advocacy for human rights and racial equality are not as well known to the general public. Smith was reared in a home where "Racial justice wasn't preached around the house, but there was a fundamental understanding that you treated each person with dignity." His father taught him that every human has value.


     While still an assistant coach at North Carolina, Smith broke the color barrier at a segregated restaurant in Chapel Hill by personally accompanying an African-American theology student to dinner at the cafe. He also recruited Charlie Scott, a New York high school basketball player, as the first minority scholarship basketball player in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the late 1960's. He invited Scott to attend his segregated church and defended him against racist fans.


     Smith joined a sixty-member Baptist campus group when he came to Chapel Hill and was instrumental in seeing the church grow to a six hundred-member congregation. The Southern Baptist Convention and the North Carolina State Baptist Convention both expelled the congregation in 1992 for licensing a gay man to the ministry. Smith was an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, anti-nuclear proliferation, and the death penalty.


     Smith periodically loaded his basketball team on a bus and took them to the prison to practice in front of the prisoners, including the the men on death row.


     People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, based in North Carolina, issued a statement that captured Smith's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty:


    "In 1998 Coach Smith joined a PFADP delegation of clergy in a clemency hearing for John Noland, whom Coach Smith had befriended years earlier when he brought his players on the UNC Men's Basketball team to visit the men on death row. Subsequent to that clemency hearing a family who had lost a member to murder volunteered and created a 24-foot banner for PFADP quoting what Coach Smith told Gov. Jim Hunt. Before the meeting Coach Smith offered to lead off the discussion. He did not tell us what he planned to say. 

     "You're a murderer!" he told the governor, pointing his finger at him. 

     "And you're a murderer! And you're a murderer! And I'm a murderer!" he said, pointing at PFADP's executive director and the gathered pastors, ending with his finger pointed at himself.

     "The death penalty makes us all murderers."


     Dean Smith was a winner both on the basketball court and in the court of justice.

Requiescat In Pace Kayla Jean Mueller
Kayla Mueller

" ... Goodbyes have never been too hard for me. They don't seem to be something in need of being made difficult or complicated. Sometimes I get a feeling telling me if I will or will not see a person again. Making it easier and sometimes harder. But moving on in a way through things is as much a part of life as breathing. It is an integral renewing and necessary venture for growth and discovery. Goodbyes come with the package. Although goodbye is really just a see you later. Later might be awhile. But as the French say, c'est la vie." ~Kayla Mueller's Journal
"Peace is not something you wish for. It's something you make. It's
something you do. It's something you are. And it's something you give away."