The Washington Supreme Court's decision to strike down the death penalty as unconstitutional brought back memories of the 1963 hanging of Joseph Chester Self, which I covered for United Press International as a young reporter. It would be the last hanging in Washington State for nearly 30 years.
Last week's ruling in which the court held unanimously that the death penalty was "arbitrary and racially biased" was the fourth time that a high court has decreed that Washington's death penalty was unconstitutional, for a variety of reasons, but capital punishment was approved anew after each of the three previous occasions.
And while the court's ruling last week included the comment "death as a penalty for crime is not in itself unconstitutional," and "We leave open the possibility that the Legislature may enact a 'carefully drafted statute," the decision noted that it would be very difficult to do that in a constitutional manner.
At the time of Self's execution 55 years ago, the state didn't have a gallows in the Old West style, but rather a large room at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, a "death chamber" as it was referred to, a short walk from Death Row where those sentenced to die awaited the outcome of their appeals process. It was later, to rectify a court decision throwing out the death penalty, that a legislature made fatal injection an option for the condemned prisoners.
Only men have been executed in Washington and, interesting in light of the court's statement about the death sentence being "racially disproportionate," of the 14 who went to their deaths between and 1947 and 1993, 13 were Caucasian, including Joe Self, and one was Hispanic.
Washington's governors have routinely passed on the opportunities over the years to interfere with the death penalty being carried out, until current governor Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and has now announced he would veto any effort to restore it.
Mike Lowry, who was then in his first year as Washington governor, was the last to weigh whether to permit a condemned man to hang, although two men were subsequently executed by lethal injection during Gary Locke's time as governor.
I once asked Lowry to recall that hanging and his thoughts about it. In the process of answering, he disclosed that a personal visit with the condemned man at the state penitentiary had been part of what he referred to as "the considerable time" he spent reviewing the case of Charles Rodman Campbell.
"I received delegations from opponents of capital punishment and, of course, from family and friends of the people he murdered," Lowry recalled. "In the end, I could not justify in my own mind reversing the 13-year legal process that included all the appeals that were made by his defense lawyers exercising his constitutional rights."
"One of the reasons I did not commute Mr. Campbell's sentence to life without the possibility of parole is that there was a very legitimate fear that he might try to kill a prison employee or other inmate," Lowry added.
I chuckled at the thought that Inslee might have taken Lowry's example and met with either one of the death row prisoners or members of the family of one of the victims before rendering his far-reaching decision
Lowry, who died 18 months ago, conceded during our conversation that is was possible there would be other executions in Washington State, noting: "I feel for whoever is governor at that time and I hope he or she will explore every opportunity to find a solid justification to commute the sentence to life without possibility of parole."
In fact, Campbell, who was executed for the murders of two women and the eight-year-old daughter of one of the women, all of whom had their throats slit, perfectly fitted the profile of a killer who deserved to die, for those who believe there may be a societal issue, not merely a legal issue in capital punishment discussion.
The late true-crime author Ann Rule wrote a chapter about Campbell in one of her books and described him as "a killer straight out of a nightmare." And then-Atty. Gen Christine Gregoire observed after Campbell's execution: "The death penalty is not something to be taken lightly and should be reserved for only the most heinous crimes. If anyone deserved the death penalty, it was Charles Campbell."
Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote that "no penological goal" was served by capital punishment. But some would argue that capital punishment could also have a societal aspect, since academic discussions of the purposes of punishment always refer to five purposes, including retribution.
And as a friend who spent years in the prosecutor's office observed to me, "closure for the families of murder victims should be a very important consideration."
Self was convicted and sentenced to die for shooting a cab driver to death in a $15 robbery, the final criminal chapter in a life of otherwise petty crimes, none of which qualified as "heinous."
When he made the short walk from his death-row holding cell to the door of the chamber, he had long-since converted to Catholicism and he had willed his eyes to an eye bank.
Two other young journalists and I were among the group of about 35 people on hand for Self's hanging, by tradition just past midnight, "the first minute of the new day."
Self, Warden Bobbie Rhay, a Catholic priest who had become Self's regular death-row visitor, and a couple of guards entered a door to the cement balcony against the back wall of the chamber, with the witnesses looking up from below. They walked to the center of the platform and stopped as Self stood above the steel door through which he would fall to his death when the door was sprung open.
Rhay asked Self if he had any final words and the condemned man replied: "Ask me if I've said my prayers, warden."
With that, a hood was pulled over Self's head. A straightjacket pinned his arms to his body. Rhay flipped a wall switch, signaling three men in a room below the death chamber that they should each flip the switches in front of them. Only one of the switches activated the trap door, through which Self fell in a moment, his neck snapping before onlookers could even grasp what they had witnessed.
That only three reporters, all print journalists in their early '20s, were on hand (no radio or television news people and no seasoned reporters) to cover the execution was a commentary on the relative importance of a hanging then, though there was certainly media coverage in the weeks prior. After all, hangings occurred on average about once a year. But Self's would be the last for decades.
By the time 30 years after Self that another death row inmate was to be hanged, the attention was widespread and went on for weeks, and all three of us who had been at Self's execution found ourselves being interviewed by various media on "what it was like."