Anyone keeping score?

He's a monster. And a devil. And devoid of human empathy.

That's the gist of what we've read about the man who killed 48 women, who strangled them and dumped their bodies along the river and in the woods, where he sometimes returned to satisfy his necrophiliac impulses.

He's quite the piece of work, that Gary Leon Ridgway.

Norm Maleng, the King County prosecutor, said he wouldn't bargain with the death penalty. He and his assistants felt they had a solid case against Ridgway in seven of the murders. But that left 41, and, faced with the prospect of never bringing those cases to resolution, Maleng had a change of heart.

The monster lives.

This turn of events has, of course, reignited debate over the death penalty. Some ask how a person who took 48 lives could have his spared while another person who murdered but one is sentenced to death. Others argue that without the threat of execution hanging over him, Ridgway would have had no incentive to confess. (But then, if the authorities hadn't had 41 unsolved murders on their hands, they wouldn't have had any incentive to bargain, either. So who got the better end of that deal?)

Full disclosure: I am a death-penalty abolitionist. My wife and I have made contributions to the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and had once attended that organization's annual meeting.

That one meeting was enough for me. I appreciate that the Coalition's more active members are doing the grunt work for a cause I believe in, and as individuals they seem to be fine folks. But as a group they came off as cliquish and self-righteous. And that's not the way to be when you're opposing a practice favored by upwards of 70 percent of the public.

So how better to change those minds?

Acknowledging the couple of things to be said for execution might be a good place to start. The first is that dead men don't kill again. Recall Ted Bundy, who twice escaped custody in Colorado and went on to commit more murders. And the second is that there is some value in revenge. If Ridgway had killed someone I knew and loved, I imagine that I, too, would want him dead. And I also imagine that's some of what he will hear at a court hearing later this month, when the families of his victims take their 10 minutes each to tell him what they think.

Still, our justice system exists to save us from our baser instincts, and there is nothing baser than bloodlust. And Bundy had the luck to be confined under the most porous security this side of Mayberry.

The heart does not bleed for the likes of Gary Ridgway and Ted Bundy, or for the lesser killers our region has known, such as Charles Rodman Campbell and Wesley Allen Dodd. Our world is little the worse for being rid of the latter three, but it's none the better, either. We are no safer for it (the Walla Walla penitentiary is not the Aspen jail), and no matter how we loathe what these men did, killing them did not bring their victims back to life.

And if a death statute does anything to deter others from murder, I have yet to see convincing evidence of it.

The obvious lesson to take from the Ridgway case is that there is no fair way to apply the death penalty. And when we lose faith in the fairness of the justice system, we open the door to vigilantism.

It's no real surprise that Ridgway saw himself as something of a vigilante. He was doing his part to rid the world of hookers, women he saw as sub-human.

But that's the calculation that must be made before executing a person, whether the execution takes place in the cab of a pickup truck or on a gurney at the state pen. For cold, calculated killing to jibe with our professed values, we must deny the condemned full human status. We have to call him a monster.

No, the objection to capital punishment isn't so much for what it does to the condemned; it's for what it does to the rest of us. No matter the momentary satisfaction we may take in knowing that a killer got a dose of his own medicine, when we kill for reasons no more noble than revenge (and revenge is what that capital punishment is good for, no matter how its proponents would otherwise characterize it) we make ourselves less fully human than we could be.

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