OLYMPIA — Every year for the past five years, Rep. Reuven Carlyle has sponsored a bill that would eliminate Washington’s death penalty. And every year the bill went nowhere.
But this year, the Seattle Democrat’s bill managed to get a public hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. On Wednesday, lobbyists from several organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the Faith Action Network — testified in favor of the bill, along with several individuals whose family members had been murdered. No one testified against the bill.
Although capital punishment has been briefly banned from time to time through legislative action and court rulings, it has been legal for most of Washington’s statehood. The Legislature most recently passed a law legalizing the death penalty in 1981, and since then 32 people have been placed on death row. Five have been executed. The last time capital punishment was used in Washington was the 2010 execution of Cal Coburn Brown, convicted of the 1991 murder of a Seattle woman.
House Bill 1504 has 21 supporters in the House, including Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, the only Republican who signed on to the bill. But the bill is unlikely to move forward, Carlyle said.
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Still, he called the hearing a victory, because it allowed Washington citizens to take part in a global conversation about the morality of capital punishment.
Seventeen states have banned the death penalty, and Maryland could become No. 18. On Wednesday morning, that state’s Senate voted to make it illegal. The measure has yet to be approved by the Maryland House and governor.
“There is something honorable and noble about putting this issue on the table to acknowledge that there is a national and international movement afoot to move away from the death penalty,” Carlyle said.
Carlyle said his aversion to capital punishment is two pronged: He is opposed to it from a policy standpoint because of the high cost of death-penalty trials and appeals, and he is opposed morally because of the possibility that someone could be wrongfully put to death.
“There is no way to operate perfectly in applying the death penalty,” Carlyle explained. “The system is flawed and inherently subjective.”
Mark Larranaga, a Seattle lawyer and former Washington Death Penalty Assistance Center director, told lawmakers that trying death-penalty cases is significantly and unavoidably more expensive than trying other cases.
“The cost associated with capital punishment is inherent in the process,” Larranaga said. “It is extremely expensive.”
A 2006 Washington State Bar Association study showed that the court operation costs for a capital-punishment case were $50,000 to $70,000 higher than for a noncapital case.
High costs are the result of longer trials and enhanced jury screening, among other factors. Attorney fees for the prosecution and defense combined averaged about $470,000 higher than for a noncapital case.
State law mandates that defendants in capital-punishment cases be granted an appeal, which can cost between $47,000 and $135,000 in additional defense attorney fees, the study said.
Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, said he believes the death penalty is necessary in certain cases — such as the appalling 2009 murders of four Lakewood police officers.
“I think that there’s absolutely a valid place in our criminal justice system for capital punishment,” Rodne said.
Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org