Washington lawmakers should show ethical leadership and abolish the death penalty.
Lawmakers in the state Senate demonstrated ethical leadership in voting last week to abolish the death penalty. The state House should follow their lead.
The chair of the House Judiciary Committee says she expects her committee to vote Thursday to send the measure to the House floor.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, says similar measures have been heard in her committee several times over the past five years, but she has never brought them up for a vote because she knew a death-penalty repeal would not get a hearing in the Senate.
This is a different year.
With new leadership in the Senate, the repeal bill not only got a hearing but passed on the floor with a bipartisan vote of 26-22. Jinkins isn’t positive the bill will also pass the House but says she’s more optimistic than she’s been since becoming chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2014.
Senate Bill 6052 has bipartisan support this year for a number of good reasons, ranging from the lack of any evidence the death penalty deters crime to the potential for mistaken executions. But the two most resonant arguments in this state are the disturbing inequity of its application and the squandering of public resources.
Because a death-penalty case costs an estimated $1.5 million to prosecute — as much as $1 million more than the cost of non-death-penalty cases for similar crimes — only a handful of Washington counties can afford to consider pursuing that penalty in a murder case. Smaller counties couldn’t pursue the death penalty even if their prosecuting attorneys and their citizens wanted to.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says the death penalty siphons money that could go to other programs that make an impact on public safety. And after all the money spent on appeals of death-penalty cases, the majority tried since 1981, when Washington reinstated the death penalty, were overturned on appeal.
During that time, of 33 people sentenced to die, 20 verdicts have been overturned on appeal, five people have been executed and eight are currently on death row. Hundreds more cases have been death-penalty eligible, according to the Washington State Bar Association, but execution was sought only in less than a third. The eight men on death row could die in prison, just like they would under a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
After 27 years as a prosecuting attorney in the state’s largest — and wealthiest — county, Satterberg has declared the death penalty broken and not fixable.
“This fight is simply not worth the time, the money, nor the delay in the delivery of justice,” Satterberg wrote in a guest opinion column in this newspaper.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions in 2014, which helped restart this policy conversation. But that does not bind future governors or future prosecutors.
The state House should fix that problem by following the Senate’s lead and repealing the death penalty.