In Focus: Death penalty con -- Government can kill you

September 13, 2013 

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage everyone to attend the Columbia Basin Badger Club forum — Capital Punishment: Is it right to execute criminals? — from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at the Red Lion in Kennewick.

The featured speakers are former Benton County deputy prosecuting attorney Karen Koehmstedt and Jim Robles, former president of the board of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Like Mr. Robles, I oppose the death penalty. I have more experience and knowledge about executions than the average citizen, and I believe folks should learn more about it.

Consider the recent popularity of the libertarian movement and its ability to cross political party lines with its focus on limiting government intrusion upon individual freedoms and rights.

It is astounding how concerned some are that government might restrict how many bullets a magazine can hold, impede voting registration, raise taxes — or pick your biggest gripe about government treading on your personal interests.

Compare that with the fact the government — check that, two of your governments — can lawfully kill you. That’s right, you don’t have an absolute right to life. Washington and the United States government can decide to try you for a capital crime, and if found guilty, execute you.

Now I’m not making a claim that a 30-round clip for your AK-47 isn’t important or whether having one is protected by the Second Amendment. I am saying that on the list of things a government should not confiscate is the life of a citizen. Never. Not for any reason ever. To my way of thinking it should be at the top of the list of “The government shall not.”

Maybe I should have said this at the beginning. My opposition to the death penalty isn’t spurred by the horrors other states have experienced with innocents being put to death, grim racial imbalances, developmentally disabled being put to death and other injustices. To be sure, these are compelling arguments that should win the day on their own merits, but they haven’t been my experience and don’t appear as often in Washington state.

I have participated in three executions in Washington, and I confess I didn’t lose a wink of sleep over any of them. They were all guilty of crimes too horrible to contemplate. And get this, I believe they deserved worse (I’m sure to the shock and horror of my fellow abolitionists!) If my family had been their victims, well, I understand the rage. But government is supposed to stand between the public’s rage and the individual citizen.

It is my hope this growing interest in liberty will spark some comparative values of what limits should be placed on government. Perhaps folks will pause a moment and ponder whether their government should kill its own people. If I believed government is and always will be infallible and omniscient in applying the death penalty, then I might be less concerned.

What about you? Are you OK with the occasional execution that’s done in error? What if you were told it’s your job to kill another American on behalf of the government such as I and your other public servants have? Are you still OK with it? I wonder if this will come up in the forum. I hope to see you there.

Dick Morgan retired as director of the Division of Prisons in 2010. He is the third of four generations of Morgans to work at the penitentiary in Walla Walla. He participated in the executions of Westley Allen Dodd, Charles Campbell and James Elledge.

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