by Mark Larrañaga
Earlier this month, the death penalty trial of Mr. McEnroe came to an end when a jury concluded that he should spend the rest of his life in prison rather than face execution. His case illustrates the far-reaching impact of capital punishment on the victims’ family, our memories of the victims, the jurors, counsel and the community.
Death penalty cases are time-consuming, expensive and rarely result in a death sentence. A recent Seattle University study concluded that death penalty trials cost substantially more than non-death penalty homicide trials. This case was no different. Sources have put the expense of this trial, and the trial of co-defendant Michelle Anderson — against whom the prosecutor continues to seek the death penalty at more than $10 million. This financial burden on the community is the direct result of the prosecutor seeking the death penalty. Had the prosecutor not sought a death sentence, this case would have resulted in the same sentence the jury imposed, but years earlier and at far less cost.
The cost, however, is not only monetary. Capital punishment turns love and loss into a legal process. Victims become overshadowed by court hearings, legal arguments, and debates about the death penalty, when they should be remembered for who they were.
Surviving family members are asked to endure lengthy trials and if a death sentence is imposed, lengthy appeals. After the jury’s verdict in this case, members of the victims’ family expressed relief that they “don’t have to deal with it again.” Had a death sentence been imposed, the appellate process would have taken years and likely resulted in the same sentence this jury imposed. The Seattle University study also found that in Washington State, seventy-five percent of death sentences are reversed due to significant errors at trial. On the other hand, appeals of life in prison without parole sentences – like the one imposed here – take far less time and are upheld over ninety-percent of the time.
Most of us have an opinion about the death penalty, but only a few are asked to actually carry it out. The emotional toll on jurors sitting on death penalty cases is, sadly, overlooked and discounted. Their family, jobs, and daily lives are placed on hold – often for months – and then they are asked to decide whether someone should live or die. One juror, expressing this daunting task, said, “This was a deeply personal decision for a lot of people and the last 4 months pushed people to the edge. And that’s the tough thing for people who’ve never been a juror.” Another explained that the deliberations were, and remain, emotional. One bluntly put it this way: “It sucked. It was miserable. That’s all I could say. This isn’t a decision that people should have to try and make.” Yet, as long as the death penalty exists, jurors will be required to endure this traumatic experience.
The death penalty is wrong. And this sentiment is growing. In addition to Governor Inslee’s decision for a moratorium because of the problems with the death penalty, the Seattle Times editorial board, who previously supported the death penalty, has changed its position and announced this year that it encourages the end of its use. But they are not alone. The Spokesman-Review and the Everett Herald, to name others, have also called for its end.
This death penalty trial brings to the forefront many of the problems with capital punishment. It taught us, without little doubt, that the death penalty costs millions and millions of dollars, takes years and years, often resulting in a non-death sentence, all the while wreaking personal havoc and emotional trauma. It is time we no longer allow the death penalty to destroy us.