Washington Legislature looks to abolish the Death Penalty

After failing to gain traction in previous years, an effort to abolish the death penalty in Washington passed out of the state Senate Wednesday and now heads to the House.

The measure passed out of the Democratic-led chamber on a bipartisan vote, with a handful of Democrats crossing over to vote no, and five Republicans voting yes, including the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla.

During the floor debate, Walsh said that her motivation for the bill was because “simply, this seems to be a flawed policy.”

The measure would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandate instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. There has been a moratorium on the death penalty since 2014, put in place by Gov. Jay Inslee.

A 2015 study from Seattle University found that death penalty cases in the state cost $1 million more than similar cases where capital punishment is not sought.

“We spend a lot of money, our tax money, appealing these decisions, and we have done this for many, many years,” Walsh said. “I have no sympathy for people that kill people, that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this maybe because I feel like it’s somewhat our responsibility as legislators to vet these issues here in this forum, in this venue.”

Before the final vote, lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have sent the measure to voters to decide. Three additional amendments were shot down by Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib on procedural grounds: two that would have retained the death penalty as an option when the victim was a law enforcement officer or corrections officer, and another that would have retained the death penalty for defendants who request it.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said he was voting no because he had “no trust in the judiciary that life without parole really means life without parole.”

“In our court system today does anyone have absolute confidence in anything?” he asked. “I don’t.”

Previous bills to ban the death penalty never got past the committee phase in either the Senate or House.

Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the measure would get a hearing before her committee, but she said that while she personally supports the bill, it’s too soon to say whether it will make it to the House floor, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.

“I will work very, very hard to make that happen,” she said. “This is a deeply moral decision for every single lawmaker. It’s going to require bipartisan support probably to make it out of committee and most certainly to move off the floor of the House.”

Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, a co-sponsor of the measure, said Wednesday’s vote reflects the public’s evolving thinking on the death penalty.

“You cannot read a front page story about DNA mistakes that has someone in jail for 35 years and not be jolted to the core,” he said after the vote. “That has transformed the public’s view of this issue.”

In a written statement issued after the vote, Inslee said that when he enacted the moratorium, “I hoped it would create space for a discussion about the unequal application of this law, the enormous costs of seeking this punishment and the uncertainty of closure for victims’ families.”

“I hope Washington joins the growing number of states that are choosing to end the death penalty,” he wrote.

The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and several states are considering measures this year. An additional four states — Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — currently have moratoriums.

There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904. The most recent execution in the state came in 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman.

In December 2016, Inslee invoked the moratorium as he reprieved Clark Elmore, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Reprieves aren’t pardons and don’t commute the sentences of those condemned to death. As long as the moratorium is in place, death-row inmates will remain in prison rather than face execution.