Politics & Government

Effort to abolish death penalty in Washington gains steam after it clears Senate committee

In this 2003 photo, curtains of razor wire surround the Intensive Management Unit at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The unit houses death row inmates, problematic prisoners and those in protective custody. There is a bill being introduced during the 2018 legislative session to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.
In this 2003 photo, curtains of razor wire surround the Intensive Management Unit at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The unit houses death row inmates, problematic prisoners and those in protective custody. There is a bill being introduced during the 2018 legislative session to abolish the death penalty in Washington state. News Tribune file photo

A bill proposing the abolition of Washington’s death penalty has been voted out of a state Senate committee. The move reflects the latest — and what some lawmakers say is the strongest — push to replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without parole.

The chairman of the Law and Justice committee, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, voted with three other committee members Thursday to advance the bill. Pedersen has said the vote represents the first time any bill to ban the death penalty has made it out of a legislative committee in the five years he’s served in the Senate — and possibly ever.

Three Republicans, including Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the prior committee chair, voted no. Padden supported two amendments that were voted down. One would have retained the death penalty for the murder of a police or correctional officer; the other would have asked for a public referendum on whether to keep the sentence.

“Since this was passed by an initiative of the people, which I believe is a directive to us, this needs to go back to the people to ask them whether this law should stay in effect or whether it should be repealed,” Angel said after the committee meeting.

The bill has several legislative hurdles to clear before making it to the governor’s desk, so the possibility of the death penalty being revoked is still unclear.

But Pedersen believes a floor vote by the Senate is possible.

“I predict there’s a better than average chance there will be a floor vote in the Senate, which obviously would be historic,” Pedersen said.

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said in a meeting with reporters earlier this week he’ll have to check with other lawmakers before introducing a bill to abolish the death penalty on his chamber’s floor.

Under current state law, people found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder can be put to death by hanging or lethal injection. The most recent execution took place in 2010 when Cal Coburn Brown, who was convicted for the 1991 rape and murder of 21 year-old Holly Washa, was put to death by lethal injection.

In 2014, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, placed a moratorium on the death penalty, suspending the practice for as long as he’s in office.

Advocates for capital punishment have argued the sentence can be a useful negotiating tool against some of the state’s most egregious offenders. They point to the 1991 conviction of Gary Ridgway as an example. Ridgway — also known as the Green River killer — agreed to tell prosecutors the whereabouts of the bodies of some of his undiscovered victims in exchange for life imprisonment.

 

Prosecutors have since backed away from the strategy, saying the death penalty’s costly application and ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent should be considered in any reforms.

“It’s not about what the killers deserve; it’s about what we deserve,” King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg testified during a hearing the Senate bill. “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.”

Critics of the death penalty have long scrutinized the practice as a high-stakes arm of an imperfect justice system that can — and has — executed innocent people. More than 150 individuals nationwide have been exonerated from death row since 1973, according to data from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

One of those cases occurred in Washington state. Benjamin Harris was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Jimmie Lee Turner, a Tacoma auto mechanic, only to have the charges dropped on appeal 11 years later.

“We have an imperfect system, and as long as people are involved mistakes can happen,” said Stefanie Anderson, board president of the Washington Coalition to End the Death Penalty.

The death penalty also comes with fiscal baggage. Largely due to legal fees in the appeal process, the death penalty costs an average $1 million more per case than life imprisonment in Washington, according to a 2015 Seattle University study of state convictions.

“The death penalty has become so problematic, so costly, so unevenly applied, that we need to recognize there are more effective ways to punish those who commit heinous crimes,” state Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, sponsor of this year’s bill said in a statement emailed to The News Tribune.

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person to be exonerated from death row in the United States by DNA evidence, also was present Thursday when the bill was voted out of committee.

Bloodsworth was arrested in 1984 for the murder of 9-year-old Don Hamilton in Maryland. He spent almost nine years in prison and two on death row before he was exonerated in 1993. The crab fisherman now works with death-penalty abolition efforts across the country.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with left or right,” Bloodsworth said. “You could kill an innocent person, and God help you if you do, I don’t care how perfect you are.”

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