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The science of imposing the death penalty

The execution of Eric King reveals the imprecision in choosing who should be condemned, say death penalty observers.

King was executed March 29 for the 1989 murders of convenience-store clerk Ronald Barman and security guard Richard Butts, which by comparison doesn’t rise to the level of most death penalty cases, even the next scheduled one.

“This one just looks like a robbery gone awry,” said Rep. Cecil Ash, a Mesa Republican and former criminal defense attorney who witnessed King’s death.

Ash pointed to the facts of the case involving Daniel Wayne Cook, who is scheduled for execution on April 5, as a comparatively more egregious and depraved than King’s case.

Cook and an accomplice tortured their two victims for hours before crushing the windpipe of one and strangling the other.

Ash said he is a supporter of the death penalty but takes a pragmatic view that it is too costly and the chances too great of executing an innocent person.

Larry Hammond, a criminal defense attorney who leads Justice Project, an organization that helps inmates who have been wrongfully convicted or falsely accused, said most agree that society isn’t prepared to execute every convicted murderer and the death penalty should be reserved for only the worst of the worst, yet no state has developed a system that eliminates those who shouldn’t be executed.

“Are we really distinguishing the worst of the worst? Why this guy?” Hammond said, referring to King.

Maricopa County has seen thousands of homicides in the past five years, but the vast majority of those are not prosecuted as death-penalty cases, Hammond said.

Arizona’s death row houses 127 men and three women.

According to court documents, King and Michael Jones went to the Short Stop Convenience store, 4252 S. 48th St., in Phoenix on Dec. 27, 1989, to buy some wine.

Jones was also charged with the murders, but prosecutors dismissed the case because they couldn’t establish that he was an accomplice.

Jones did become the star witness and he said he stood outside the store while King went inside.

Jones testified that he heard gunshots and saw King leaving with a handgun and Butts lying on the ground.

Jones has always admitted that he was extremely intoxicated the night of the murder and only recently said that he didn’t remember a thing.

King was seen returning to the store to wipe Butts’ holster and a witness said she saw him in the vicinity of the store around the time of the murders throwing a gun into a trash dumpster. The murder weapon was never found.

King made off with $72.84.

Judge Michael Ryan, who went on to become an Arizona Supreme Court justice, found that the state proved King committed the crime for financial gain, a circumstance that requires the imposition of the death penalty.

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