Law Enforcement

New Voices

Law Enforcement

As he prepared for retirement, the long-time director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said he does not support the death penalty and believes the punishment is on its way out in Georgia and across the country. In a television interview on his final day of work as GBI director, Vernon Keenan (pictured) told WXIA-TV, Atlanta’s NBC television affiliate, that he has “never believed in the death penalty” and “[t]he day will come when we won’t have the death penalty in Georgia and in the United States.”

Keenan, a 45-year veteran of law enforcement who has run the state criminal justice agency for the past sixteen years, called the death penalty outdated and ineffective in advancing public safety. Keenan said, “I don’t believe the death penalty deters anyone. The people that commit crime, they don’t believe they’re going to get caught. The death penalty is just a way society gets retribution from the criminal.” He told WXIA that he believes declining public support for capital punishment will ultimately lead elected officials to reconsider whether the death penalty should remain part of the state’s criminal code.

Keenan’s belief that the death penalty is not a deterrent reflects the widely held beliefs of many senior criminal justice personnel. A 2008 study found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists believe the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime and that three-quarters of them believed that debates over the death penalty “distract legislatures from real crime solutions.” A 2008 poll of 500 police chiefs in the United States, commissioned by DPIC, found that police chiefs rank the death penalty lowest among crime fighting options as “most important for reducing violent crime.” The chiefs believed that increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy were all more important in reducing crime. More than two-thirds (69%) said that “[p]oliticians support the death penalty as a symbolic way to show they are tough on crime.” “I believe life in prison without parole is punishment enough,” Keenan said. “Probably worse than death.”

Georgia was one of only eight states to carry out executions in 2018. No Georgia jury has recommended a new death sentence since 2014.

(Doug Richards, Retiring GBI director predicts demise of death penalty, WXIA-TV, 11 Alive News, December 31, 2018.) See New Voices and Deterrence


Drawing on their experience in the criminal justice system, elected law enforcement officials in Washington and Texas have urged repeal of their states’ death-penalty laws. In Washington, King County (Seattle) prosecutor Dan Satterberg (pictured, left), a Republican, testified January 22 before the Senate Law and Justice Committee in favor of a bipartisan legislative proposal to repeal Washington’s capital-punishment statute. Telling the Texas Tribune “[w]e’re killing the wrong people,” former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez (pictured, right), currently a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Texas, announced her opposition to Texas’s death penalty. Satterberg’s testimony came on the heels of an op-ed he wrote in The Seattle Times in support of SB6052, a bill that would prospectively abolish capital punishment. Satterberg, who has worked in the King County prosecutor’s office for 27 years and witnessed Washington’s last execution in 2010, wrote: “It is my duty to report that the death penalty law in our state is broken and cannot be fixed. It no longer serves the interests of public safety, criminal justice, or the needs of victims.” Sitting alongside Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Satterberg told the committee, “If you look at it carefully and take away the politics and the emotion, by any measure this doesn’t work. Our criminal justice system would be stronger without the death penalty.” The abolition bill was introduced by Republican state Sen. Maureen Walsh, with bipartisan co-sponsorship, at Ferguson’s request. In a news release, Ferguson said: “The death penalty is expensive, unfair, disproportionate — and it doesn’t work. More than a third of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty. Washington should join them.” The bill passed the committee by a 4-3 vote on January 25. In a Texas candidate’s forum in Austin, Valdez—who served as sheriff from 2005 to 2017 before resigning to run for governor—referenced on-going concerns about wrongful capital convictions and wrongful executions. “Some of those [sentenced to death in Texas] have been exonerated,” Valdez said. “We cannot continue being in a situation where we risk killing a person who is not guilty.” Since 1973, 13 people have been exonerated from death row in Texas, and questions have been raised about the guilt of several executed prisoners, including Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Willingham, and Robert Pruett. Valdez joined another leading Democratic contender for governor, businessman Andrew White, in opposing the death penalty. Incumbent Governor Greg Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, is a strong supporter of capital punishment.

(Dan Satterberg, King County’s prosecuting attorney: ‘We don’t need the death penalty’, The Seattle Times, January 19, 2018; AG Ferguson, King County Prosecutor Satterberg testify in Olympia to end death penalty, Kent Reporter, January 22, 2018; Max Wasserman, Effort to abolish death penalty in Washington gains steam after it clears Senate committee, The News Tribune, January 25, 2018; Patrick Svitek, Democratic candidate for governor Lupe Valdez calls for increased minimum wage, is open to a tax increase, Texas Tribune, January 18, 2018; Ross Ramsey, Analysis: What works in one Texas election might not work in the next one, Texas Tribune, January 19, 2018.) See Recent Legislation.


Former high-ranking law enforcement officials from Arizona and Kansas have called on their states to end the death penalty. In separate op-ed stories one week apart, former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (pictured, left) and former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz (pictured, right) conclude that the capital punishment schemes in their states have failed and should be abandoned. In a November 5 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star headlined Arizona’s 40-year experiment with the death penalty has failed, Attorney General Goddard said “Arizona does not have a good track record for getting [the death penalty] right,” pointing to problems of innocence, racial disparity, cost, and persistent structural problems with the state’s death penalty law. Goddard, a former Mayor of Phoenix, later oversaw the executions of six people during his tenure as the state’s Attorney General from 2003 to 2011. He now says the state’s death penalty has “failed … in fundamental ways,” with a statute so broad that it “captur[es] nearly every first-degree murder” and defective statutory provisions and judicial procedures that have caused “dozens of [cases to] have been set aside.” He says “[s]entencing the innocent to die … is reason alone to abandon the death penalty.” Although “[g]etting it wrong once is one time too many,” Arizona “has swept up the innocent in its net” at least nine times. Goddard argues that the “unsettling racial disparities” in the application of Arizona’s death penalty—Hispanic men accused of murdering whites are sentenced to death at more than four times the rate of white defendants accused of murdering Hispanics—and “[t]he spiraling costs of seeking and imposing a death sentence are further reason to abandon the policy.” Goddard concludes that, after four decades of using capital punishment, “Arizona has failed to narrow [its] application … and has been unable or unwilling to provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the death penalty is only imposed on the worst offenders.” Given these “myriad problems,” he says, “Arizona should join the rising tide against imposing it.” On October 31, Corrections Secretary Werholtz also authored an op-ed advocating ending the death penalty, though for very different reasons. In an opinion piece in the Topeka Capital-Journal entitled End the death penalty in Kansas, Secretary Werholtz addressed the state’s budget shortfall and the challenges it posed to keeping corrections staff, prisoners, and communities safe. Werholtz—who served 28 years with the Kansas Department of Corrections, including eight as its Secretary—says “one simple choice” in addressing the problem “would be to eliminate the excessive amounts of money we are spending on Kansas’ broken death penalty by replacing it with life without parole.” As Kansas faces a decision on whether to build a new execution facility to replace an execution chamber that the state has never used, Werholtz “believe[s] it’s time we acknowledge that the return on our investment in the death penalty has been abysmal. Numerous studies conclude that the death penalty keeps us no safer than imprisonment, and yet it siphons away far more crime prevention dollars.” Currently, he says, Kansas is unable to fully staff its correctional facilities or make technological improvements to ensure the safety of corrections officers and prisoners alike. “With funds so scarce, and the needs so great,” Werholtz says, “it simply makes no sense for us to continue to invest more in our ineffective death penalty.”

(T. Goddard, “Arizona’s 40-year experiment with the death penalty has failed,” Arizona Daily Star, November 5, 2017; R. Werholtz, “End the death penalty in Kansas,” The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 31, 2017.)