The state Supreme Court again passed on a chance to overturn the death penalty. It is up to the Legislature — if it has the courage to put it to a vote.
THE death penalty in Washington is like a zombie, not alive or dead, yet continuing to eat its way through precious resources in the criminal-justice system.
Capital punishment is effectively dead as long as Gov. Jay Inslee is in office, if he stays true to his word. Yet capital punishment is still alive on the books — so exhaustive, expensive appeals of death sentences continue to lurch on. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court, by an 8-1 margin, turned down an appeal by death-row inmate Cecil Davis, who argued state law is unconstitutional because it does not sufficiently protect against executing a developmentally-disabled defendant.
The Supreme Court also passed on a chance to rule the death penalty itself unconstitutional, as they have repeatedly. So eight men remain on an expensive death row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, their sentences in a limbo that gives no peace to victims’ families.
The zombie status of capital punishment also gives no reprieve to prosecutors, who must continue deciding whether to pursue the death penalty that may not be carried out. It remained on the table for the alleged Burlington mall shooter Arcan Cetin, but he died by suicide in jail before prosecutors announced a charging decision. In many more recent cases, prosecutors declined — perhaps influenced by the legal uncertainty, the apparent reluctance of some juries and the extra $1 million or more that a death-penalty sentence adds to a murder case.
The Seattle Times editorial board supports repeal of the death penalty because it is an overly expensive, ineffective and immoral sentence. Civil society must not kill its own.
Ending the death penalty can take two paths. The state Legislature has blocked both.
In a bold act, the state’s 39 county prosecuting attorneys asked the Legislature to put the question of the death penalty on the ballot. Lawmakers did not act.
The Legislature also has failed to act for decades on repeal bills. This year, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, chair of Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of the death penalty, said he would consider holding a hearing on a repeal bill — something he has not done before — if the Democrat-led House acts first. He didn’t promise he’d allow a vote, however.
House Judiciary Chair Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, declined to hold a vote in her committee, arguing there was no point if Padden remained a roadblock.
That was a mistake, one that should not be repeated next year. According to advocates for repeal, there are enough bipartisan votes in the House to pass an abolition bill. This year, former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, joined the call for repeal. At least two Republican senators, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla, also publicly support repeal.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a proponent of repeal, argues that a vote in the House could embolden previously unknown support among lawmakers. “You don’t know that reaction if you don’t take a vote,” said Ferguson in February, after Jinkins declined to hold a vote. “Right now, they have it easy. They point fingers at each other. It’s very frustrating.”
The state Supreme Court won’t end this zombie criminal policy, as they showed again last week. The public wants bold leadership on important issues. A path to repeal is through the Legislature, either this year or next — if they have the courage to act.