Friday, July 20, 2012

Death Penalty

It’s interesting the unexpected bits that readers pull from your work, the bits that hold meaning to some and are passed over by others. When I mentioned my opposition to the death penalty in my memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, it was in passing, an explanation to my lack of objection to the plea bargain offered Gary Ridgway – life in prison without parole in exchange for a full confession.

The crux of the matter lies in one's beliefs about the death penalty. Since I do not believe in institutionalized killing, in 'an eye for an eye,' since I do not believe that we can justify taking another human life, except perhaps in self-defense or the defense of those we feel compelled to protect, I do not see any justification for killing Ridgway or anyone else on Death Row. 
 (The Thirty-Ninth Victim, p. 173)

There were some who were extremely supportive when they learned of the publication of my memoir of my family's journey before and after the Green River Killer murdered my sister, Maureen. But once they read the book and learned my position on the death penalty and on the inefficiency of the Green River Task Force, they vanished into silence.

Now, four years after publication, two new groups have found their way to my book and contacted me – those advocating the repeal of capital punishment in Washington State. (For more information, visit and

With advances in DNA technology, the identities of additional victims might be learned. Should science reveal the identity of victims that Ridgway did not confess to murdering and should evidence be brought to bear his guilt, he could be tried for these crimes and the death penalty would be back on the table.  

I thought the horror was behind me, but maybe it never will be. I was opposed to the death penalty before my sister was murdered in 1983. I am opposed to it now. I don’t know at what age I first learned about capital punishment, but I clearly recall sensing an inherent contradiction even though I was too young to understand or articulate my feelings. Instead, I turned to one of the many saying that my parents used as tools of parental instruction: Two wrongs don’t make a right. And I wondered how the death penalty could be legal if two wrongs never make something right.

As I got older, as I learned of the inequitable, biased, racist application of the death penalty in the United States, as I learned of its total failure as a deterrent to violent crime and as I studied the financial costs of the endless appeals and legal processes that precede any execution, my conviction that the death penalty is just plain wrong grew stronger.

Then my youngest sister was violently murdered at the age of nineteen. For twenty years her killer was at large. For twenty years I questioned my belief system. But when push came to shove, in the face of the painful loss of a sister, my opposition to capital punishment remained solid. Killing Ridgway would do nothing to appease my pain or bring back my sister. All it would do would be to keep him in the limelight of media attention and in the process add interest to his life of incarceration while at the same time costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and assaulting the friends and families of the victims with ongoing, unending news coverage.

I cannot but wonder how Maureen would feel about it. Would she want the death penalty for her killer – a punishment of retaliation but not justice? I don’t think so. Maureen was young when she was killed, but her sense of right and wrong was formed at a very early age, just as mine was, and I don’t think her beliefs differed much from my own. No, I don’t believe Maureen would have supported the death penalty, even for her own killer. And neither do I.


Unknown said...

Hi, Arleen,

I was just telling someone here in Antigua Guatemala about your/your sister's story. So few of us have the real, hard-earned right to take intractable stands on the challenging moral issues we are faced with. Yours is a voice and a position to be reckoned with. Thank you for continuing to wrestle with Maureen's life and death in way that serves a position worth fighting for.


arleen said...

Hi Holly,
Thank you for reading and responding. It means a lot to me. So back in Antigua? I need to seat down and have a beer with you when you return and learn all about your adventures there. How many summers has it been now? I want to know all about it.
All the best,

Mindy Halleck said...

Arleen, you have a hard-earned right to your opinion and because of that, you can serve as an intelligent arbitrator in the wake of a nation that tends to seek retribution rather than to understand the moral implications of their own actions as individuals and as a society. Thank you for holding fast and stern to your belief – it gives us all pause. Mindy

arleen said...

Thank you, Mindy.