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Can we join the civilized world and end the death penalty?

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Can we join the civilized world and end the death penalty?

By Kerry Drake
— July 15, 2014

In January 1992, the last time the state of Wyoming executed a man, I was at the Capitol Building in Cheyenne before the scheduled midnight lethal injection in Rawlins, interviewing people who opposed killing Mark Hopkinson.

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Kerry Drake

I agreed with them. As a newspaper editorial writer at the time for The Wyoming Eagle, I had implored Gov. Mike Sullivan to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. So did many others, including Amnesty International. I saw the light still on in the governor’s office, and though we all knew he wasn’t going to stop Hopkinson’s imminent demise, he was at work, doing his duty, just in case something happened to stall things.

Snow was falling lightly, and there was only a small band of protesters. Even if the weather had been nicer, I doubt it would have attracted much more of a crowd. Few people in Wyoming were sympathetic toward Hopkinson, an Evanston businessman who had ordered the murders of an attorney and his family as well as a former associate, Jeffrey Green, who turned him in to authorities. Most residents believed he was getting what he deserved. I understand that feeling.

It isn’t necessarily the person being executed that makes me oppose capital punishment; I just don’t feel the state has the right to take a life in the name of its citizens. Killing Hopkinson wasn’t going to bring back his victims. Given that more than 140 nations feel the same way and have abolished the death penalty, I’m in agreement with the vast majority of people in the world.

Generally, keeping a convicted killer locked up for the rest of his or her life is enough to protect the public, though in Hopkinson’s case the prosecution had a valid point in arguing for the death penalty. Hopkinson himself didn’t kill Vincent Vehar and his family or Green, but he’d managed to order the latter’s murder while incarcerated at a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif.

Given that history, there should have been a way to monitor his contact with others and prevent another murder plot from being carried out while he served a life sentence.

I bring up Hopkinson’s execution because of the Legislature’s interest in finding an alternative way to kill condemned prisoners besides lethal injection, now that the manufacture and sale of drugs used in the process have been banned almost everywhere.

After horrendously botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma using different chemicals that caused inmates to die agonizing deaths, Wyoming is one of several states considering using a firing squad instead. A bill has been drafted similar to one sponsored earlier this year by Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan), which failed to garner the required two-thirds support for introduction during a budget session. A simple majority might be easier to receive next year, after lawmakers are further educated about the problems with the lethal injection process.

I believe a much better solution — on many levels — would be to pass a measure like one sponsored last session by Rep. Stephen Watt (R-Rock Springs), which would abolish the death penalty in Wyoming.

I rarely agree with Watt, an extremely conservative former state highway patrol trooper. He managed to get 19 others in the House to vote for introduction, falling far short of the 40 votes needed to even get the bill considered.

I understand why politicians are afraid to appear soft on crime and avoid anti-death penalty bills like the plague, but I don’t think it has any basis in reality. Commuting a sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole — forcing a prisoner to spend the rest of his life alone in a small cell until he dies a natural death — is in many ways a far worse punishment than simply killing them. It’s not an easy way out.

Quite a few inmates on death row have dropped their appeals rather than rot in prison, including Gary Gilmore, the last killer executed by a firing squad in the nation. He told the shooters, “Let’s do it,” and the state of Utah was happy to oblige.

But not all politicians view opposing capital punishment as a sure way to end their careers. Republican Wyoming Gov. Milward Simpson quickly let it be known after notorious mass murder suspect Charles Starkweather was captured in Douglas in 1958 that if he was convicted and sentenced to death by a Wyoming jury, he would commute the sentence to life.

It was a moral stand, and even though it was tempered by Simpson’s willingness to let Nebraska extradite Starkweather for the beginning of his killing spree and send him to the electric chair, the governor made sure it wasn’t going to happen in his state on his watch. Simpson lost his bid for re-election, but later won a special election to the U.S. Senate.

If Starkweather had spent the rest of his years in a Wyoming prison, he likely would have faded into obscurity, instead of forever becoming the iconic young killer.

Now Wyoming has Dale Wayne Eaton as its only death row resident. The former Moneta resident was sentenced to death in 2004 for the 1988 murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell, which took years to solve through a DNA match and the discovery of her car buried on his property. If the Legislature decides to approve a firing squad, it’s on his chest the target will first be pinned.

Eaton is a scumbag who was found guilty, and the planet will be better off when he’s no longer around. But I don’t think the state of Wyoming needs to execute him by any method.

In Eaton’s case, there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s much less expensive to house an inmate until his natural death rather than go through the exhaustive but legally necessary series of capital appeals in state and federal courts. Since he has no financial means, the state has racked up huge legal bills both prosecuting and defending him.

I’ve interviewed Kimmell’s family and have a huge amount of respect for each of them and what they went through to see Lisa Marie’s killer brought to justice. But every time his case comes up again, they have to relive their worst nightmares about her final days at Eaton’s hands. I don’t think Eaton’s death will provide them any sense of closure. The criminal justice system would have treated the family far better if it had forever locked up the killer after a reasonable number of appeals.

The argument that should end this barbaric practice in the United States is the finality of the punishment and the fact we know some men and women put to death were innocent.

Through the Innocence Project and other initiatives, DNA evidence has exonerated 143 people who were wrongly sentenced to death. The penalty is applied in an unfair and unjust manner, since minority defendants are far more likely to be executed than white ones, especially if the victim was white. Whether a person lives or dies shouldn’t be based on whether they are rich or poor, how good of a defense they can buy or what state they live in, but far too often, it is.

Wyoming can develop a better way to kill prisoners than lethal injection, by coming up with a method sure to get the job done in a more humane, quicker and reliable manner. That’s one way to look at it.

Or it can join six other states that have ended the practice. This isn’t kill-happy Texas or Florida; Wyoming has had only two executions in the past 50 years, and one person waiting who will probably die before the state takes away his final breath.

If American supporters could prove the death penalty was always fairly and justly applied to all defendants, and judges and juries never made uncorrectable mistakes by condemning and killing the innocent, they might have a case. But they can’t, so they propose firing squads instead of abolishing a practice that dehumanizes us all.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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