Despite an extraordinary year in death-penalty politics, the Legislature has punted on the issue.
Repeal of the death penalty in Washington state is a matter of when, not if.
Consider the momentum toward repeal in just the last few years. Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium shut down the death chamber, at least temporarily. The chorus calling for abolition was joined by the state’s most esteemed living Republican, ex-Gov. Dan Evans, past prison directors and a growing coalition of retired judges.
Just last year, two King County juries hearing “the worst of the worst” murder cases rejected the death penalty, effectively signaling its end in the state’s biggest county. And then state prosecutors surprised everyone by asking the Legislature to put the issue up for a referendum.
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Nationally, a series of horrendously botched executions slowed the death-penalty apparatus to a 25-year low. Just 28 death sentences were carried out last year.
That makes 2015 the biggest year in death-penalty politics in recent history. So what happened when lawmakers went back to Olympia in January?
Bills with bipartisan support in the state House and Senate that would repeal capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole haven’t even gotten a hearing. The referendum requested by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys hasn’t even been filed, let alone heard.
State Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Walla Walla Republican who favors repeal, blames the short 60-day session — everyone is looking toward the fall election. “I think anything that had the perception of controversy or partisanship wouldn’t survive well in this session,” said Walsh.
And then Senate Republicans spent weeks playing transgender bathroom police.
A big obstacle to repeal is Senate Law and Justice Committee Chair Mike Padden, a conservative Republican from Spokane Valley who you can imagine wearing a six-shooter on each hip. He told members of the committee he wouldn’t give bills — even one requested by prosecutors — a hearing. Period.
Without a route to repeal in the Senate, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, quashed a repeal bill. He apparently believes that a vote on the hot-button issue could imperil Democrats in swing districts, costing his party their razor-thin majority.
Ironically, the repeal bills would probably pass.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington’s lobbyist, Shankar Narayan, said there are now 13 Republican votes for repeal in the House and five in the Senate. That’s probably more than enough to join with Democrats and have Washington join 19 other states without a death penalty.
“The votes are there,” said Narayan. “The biggest obstacle is the fear of the politics from leadership.”
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, introduced repeal bills for seven straight sessions as a state representative and believes that repetition has paid off. “The House has gone through a thought process that forces people to go through private reflection on this issue,” he said. “It’s been an evolution.”
The extraordinary cost of the death penalty was a reason that the prosecutors wanted it put to a vote and has helped sway fiscal conservatives. A comprehensive Seattle University study put the cost at $1 million more per case than a life sentence. And that includes the cost of lifetime incarceration.
“No matter where you are on the social spectrum, you have to say it’s extraordinarily expensive,” said state Rep. Chad Magendanz, an Issaquah Republican who co-sponsored repeal legislation. “It’s not a good return on investment if you’re a prosecutor.”
In the 35 years since Washington reinstated the death penalty, prosecutors have sought capital punishment in 90 of the 268 eligible cases. Juries returned a death sentence 32 times.
In cases in which appeals ran their course, the death sentence was reversed 23 times on appeal, which pencils out to an 80 percent error rate. Walsh, Carlyle and others in the growing anti-death penalty caucus think that argument will help the Legislature finally act on the death penalty in 2017.
That may be too late.
The state Supreme Court has a case teed up next week that could be the vehicle for repeal. The appeal of Allen Gregory hits hard on the arguments that capital punishment is randomly applied in Washington and is supported by 56 retired judges, who joined an amicus brief.
Given the activist, left-leaning streak of the current court, the prohibition community thinks the case could result in the end of the death sentence.
But if that is a matter of if, not when, it should be decided outside the courtroom. Same-sex marriage was voted on by the Legislature, then the people and now it is settled, for good.
The death penalty is a question for the Legislature. Lawmakers are ready to answer it. They should get the chance.