Washington state moves to end death penalty

A bipartisan group of Washington state legislators on Monday said they would introduce new measures to end the state's death penalty.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) and Republicans and Democrats from both chambers of the state legislature said capital punishment had become too costly, and that there is little evidence that the death penalty deters any crimes. State Sen. Mark Miloscia (R) will introduce legislation in the Republican-led Senate, while state Rep. Tina Orwall (D) will carry the bill in the Democratic-led House.

"As a means of effective punishment, the death penalty is outdated," state Sen. Maureen Walsh (R) said in a statement released by Ferguson's office. "Not only is life-without-parole more cost-effective, it also offers the certainty that is an essential element of justice."

Both Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and former Attorney General Rob McKenna (R), who lost to Inslee in the 2014 race for governor, back the proposal.

There are only nine condemned prisoners on Washington State's death row. Inslee implemented a moratorium on executions in 2014, and the state has not executed anyone since 2010.

Only five prisoners have been executed in Washington since the death penalty was reimplemented in 1975, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Washington would be the 20th state in the nation to end the death penalty, 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions. In recent years, legislators in Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois and New Mexico have outlawed capital punishment.

Nebraska's state legislature ended the death penalty in 2015, though voters reinstated it through a ballot measure in November 2016.

Nationally, the use of the death penalty has declined precipitously in recent years. Since hitting a peak in 1999, when 98 prisoners were executed, the number of sentences carried out has fallen virtually every year. In 2016, only 20 prisoners were put to death, the lowest number since 1991, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Last year, just five states - Texas, Florida, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama - put prisoners to death.

The number of death sentences has also declined in recent years. In 1998, 295 people were condemned to death. In 2015, the last year for which data are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 49 people were given capital sentences.

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Death penalty repeal bill introduced in Washington state

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday announced a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.

Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014, but repeal bills introduced since that time have stalled in the Legislature. Ferguson said that he hoped with the attorney general's office officially requesting legislation, it would help elevate the conversation among lawmakers.

Inslee and Ferguson were joined by former Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, Republican Sens. Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia and Democratic Sens. Jamie Pedersen and Reuven Carlyle and Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Democrat.

Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate and Democrats hold a slight majority in the House.

"This issue transcends politics," Ferguson said.

Last month, 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. Elmore is the first of Washington's death row inmates to exhaust his appeals since the moratorium was put in place.

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.

Inslee said that capital punishment is a difficult issue, but said he ultimately issued his moratorium "because the evidence is absolutely clear."

"Death penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly," he said. "I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions."

McKenna said that death penalty appeals are so lengthy that "this is a system in which justice is delayed and delayed to a point where the system is broken.

"It isn't working anymore," he said. "It is time to move on."

The proposed bills, sponsored by Miloscia in the Senate and Orwall in the House, would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandates instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. The law, however, would not be retroactive, meaning the sentences of Elmore and seven other inmates sentenced to death would not change. However, as long as the moratorium is in place, Elmore and the others would remain at the state prison in Walla Walla.

There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904. The last execution in the state came in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman. After spending nearly 17 years on death row, he was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001.

Capital punishment is currently authorized by the federal government and 31 states, including Washington and Oregon, which also currently has a moratorium in place. Pennsylvania and Colorado also have death penalty moratoriums.

The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The latest was Delaware, whose Supreme Court last year declared the state's death penalty law unconstitutional.

Republican Sen. Steve O'Ban, vice chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he doesn't support ending the death penalty.

"It's obviously a power the government takes soberly," he said. "But if we value human life, the only appropriate sanction for the most serious crime of taking that precious individual life is the death penalty and should be retained for the most serious cases."

O'Ban said that he's not certain whether the chairman, Sen. Mike Padden, would schedule a hearing for the committee. Padden's spokesman said that Padden was home sick in Spokane Valley and not available for comment.

But O'Ban said he would welcome a public hearing on the issue.

"I think there are strong arguments to retain the death penalty, and I think it might be a healthy thing to rehear those arguments again," he said.

The measure isn't guaranteed a hearing in the House either. Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday that while she's personally supportive of repealing the death penalty, she's got a backlog of bills to hear.

"The thing I always look at is, what is the likelihood of a bill making it to the governor's desk, how many votes do I have, and how much time do I have to hear it," she said. Jinkins' committee heard a similar bill two years ago, but she didn't bring it up for a committee vote, saying at the time that she didn't think it was the right time to move it forward.

But she said that Monday's bipartisan press conference was "profoundly powerful."
"I'm going to try and work to make sure I can hear it," she said.


Republicans join Inslee, Ferguson in call to abolish Washington’s death penalty

In announcing a proposal Monday to abolish Washington’s death penalty, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson didn’t stand alone.

At Ferguson’s side were fellow Democrats, among them Gov. Jay Inslee, and several Republicans, including former Attorney General Rob McKenna and two members of the GOP-controlled state Senate.

The message they sought to convey: There is now enough support in Olympia for an earnest conversation about whether to end the death penalty. Lawmakers in recent years have been reluctant to allow votes on bills that would end executions.

Around the country, “Legislatures are acting on this important issue with up-and-down votes,” Ferguson said during the news conference. “And it’s time for Washington, the state Legislature here, to take that vote.”

The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The latest was Delaware, whose Supreme Court last year declared the state’s death-penalty law unconstitutional.

Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014. In 2015, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for a public vote on whether the state should keep the death penalty.

The prosecutors’ action followed jury decisions in two high-profile cases — the murders of a Carnation family in 2007 and a Seattle police officer in 2009 — not to sentence the killers to death.

With the attorney general’s office officially requesting legislation, Ferguson on Monday said he hoped lawmakers would be spurred to take action.

Joining Ferguson, Inslee and McKenna were Republican Sens. Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia and Democratic Sens. Jamie Pedersen and Reuven Carlyle, and Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Democrat.

Last month, Inslee invoked the moratorium as he gave a reprieve to Clark Elmore, sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of 14-year-old Kristy Ohnstad in Bellingham. Elmore is the first of Washington’s death-row inmates to exhaust his appeals since the moratorium was put in place.

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.

Death-penalty appeals are so lengthy that “this is a system in which justice is delayed and delayed to a point where the system is broken,” said McKenna, who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2013, and lost the governor’s race to Inslee in 2012.

“It isn’t working anymore,” McKenna said. “It is time to move on.”

Inslee said capital punishment is a difficult issue, but said he ultimately issued his moratorium “because the evidence is absolutely clear.”

“Death-penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly,” he said. “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.”

The proposed bills, sponsored by Miloscia in the Senate and Orwall in the House, would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandate instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Miloscia, a Democrat turned Republican, cited his Catholic faith in his opposition to executions. Walsh cited the government expenses that add up as death-row inmates go through the appeals process as the reason she wanted to see the practice ended.

Still, the proposal could face steep odds in the Legislature. Miloscia’s 2015 bill to stop executions didn’t get a public hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate Law and Justice Committee — much less a vote.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place and committee vice chairman, said Monday he doesn’t support a death-penalty repeal. O’Ban, however, said he favored at least giving the proposal a hearing.

“I think there are strong arguments to retain the death penalty, and I think it might be a healthy thing to rehear those arguments again,” O’Ban said.

O’Ban said he wanted to look at ways to make the death-penalty appeals process less expensive.

Ferguson’s proposal would not be retroactive, meaning the sentences of Elmore and seven other inmates sentenced to death would not change.

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

After spending nearly 17 years on death row, he was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001.

Capital punishment is currently authorized by the federal government and 31 states, including Washington and Oregon, which also has a moratorium in place.

Pennsylvania and Colorado also have death-penalty moratoriums.

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