Shapiro confronts ACLU Washington on death penalty moratorium celebration

By KTTH | February 12, 2014

Aside from dangerous criminals, the other people celebrating Gov. Jay Inslee’s death penalty moratorium announcement on Tuesday were liberals, especially those in groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

KTTH host Ben Shapiro welcomed ACLU Washington attorney Alison Holcomb on his show Tuesday to discuss Inslee’s announcement. The state ACLU organization called Inslee’s decision “a courageous act of leadership.”


Ben Shapiro: What exactly about the death penalty moratorium is making you so happy? I just read the list of people on death row – do any of those people truly deserve to live?

Alison Holcomb: I don’t think this is a moment of celebration and joy. I do think the governor’s decision was courageous and did exhibit leadership, but this is a very difficult issue and I think the governor respects that. This is not a decision he made based on the facts of any of the cases, based on any of the individuals on death row in Washington now. He made this decision based on what good policy for government officials should be, what’s right for the state of Washington when it comes to how we use our criminal justice system.

Shapiro: It’s very easy to generalize, but the truth is that there are only nine people on death row. Presumably, all he did was put a moratorium on those nine people, or the next couple people who may enter in the next couple of years. How does this serve the interest of the criminal justice system beyond simply pointing out that he thinks the death penalty is morally wrong in some way?

Holcomb: What governor Inslee’s decision did, it reflected months of consideration he put into whether the death penalty is actually good policy for the state of Washington. It opens a conversation. It’s not pushing the state in a particular direction right now. But it is demonstrating that he has at least changed his position. He once supported the death penalty but after closer examination decided it wasn’t a workable policy. And that opens the door for a broader and deeper conversation in our Legislature and throughout our state with all of our citizens on whether or not the death penalty is a workable policy for us.

Shapiro: Why do you think that the death penalty is not a workable policy? I understand all the arguments about the application of it being unjust that more poor people than rich people find themselves on death row. Shouldn’t the case be made that in cases where you deserve the death penalty, it should be applied if you’re poor or rich? Why does letting [Clark Richard Elmore, on death row for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Christy Onstad] off death row forward the goal of greater justice?

Holcomb: It’s not about letting any individual off death row. It’s about whether the death penalty brings equal justice to all perpetrators in the criminal justice system. You ask about that particular case, others ask about Gary Ridgway [also called the Green River Killer, Ridgway is not on death row, but serving a life sentence without parole] – the point is, justice is not distributed equally. It wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars. We already have cases at the trial level reaching the $7 million mark. What else could those resources be put to use for?

Shapiro: Well largely those resources that are being used on death penalty cases is impacted because of the work of groups like the ACLU, who make it more expensive to file appeals by the prosecutors in cases on the death penalty.

Holcomb: Most of the cost in death penalty cases come at trial level before any appeal is filed. Most of it comes from Constitutional protections in place that have to be there because the risk of executing an innocent person is so high we have to have mitigation packages, we have to have thorough investigations, we have to make sure that we get it right. And that’s where these costs come from. Right now, there are 2 cases that are pending in King County that have not even been to trial yet, and have already run up a fee of $7 million. That’s from investigation and preparation.

Shapiro: It’s tied to the appeal in the sense that you’re trying to make the case appeals proof – that’s why you go through that entire process, right?

Holcomb: I would also agree and I hope you would too that it’s much better we do that than execute a single innocent person.

Shapiro: Here’s the problem with this entire argument: if the argument of the ACLU is that the death penalty can’t be applied because there’s doubt about any of the people on death row or who will be on death row, why doesn’t the ACLU hold the same standards to normal crime? For example, you know the ACLU, they feel that Gov. Inslee is doing something courageous and wonderful in putting a moratorium on the death penalty, would they feel the same way if Gov. Inslee were simply lowering sentences across the board because he was afraid of the risk of putting an innocent person in prison?

Holcomb: If we want to talk about the criminal justice system more broadly, I would hope that we would look at the fact that although the United States only represents 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of its inmates. That should cause us to question why it is that the land of the free and the brave is the No. 1 jailor in the world. There’s no doubt that there’s additional room for reform within the criminal justice system, but today we’re talking about whether or not the death penalty is a good policy and I think Gov. Inslee has made the right call on that question.

Shapiro: The part I continue to fail to understand is why it’s good policy to take people out of the line of death row who are clearly guilty. Even the ACLU isn’t arguing that these people are innocent or guilty. This is sort of the problem – the difference between the personal and the political.

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