The state Supreme Court has struck down Washington’s death-penalty law, but it remains a stain on the state’s statute books. Let this Legislative session be the one a full repeal passes both chambers to fully erase capital punishment from state law.
Prosecutors’ wildly uneven usage of the penalty created too many inequities to ignore, including racial and geographic ones. Most Washington counties did not apply the penalty after its 1981 reinstatement, owing to political and cost concerns. And a King County jury in 2015 refused even to consider the penalty in a heinous murder case.
No Washington inmate has been executed since convicted murderer Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014. Washington’s Supreme Court found death penalty laws unconstitutional four times, most recently in October 2018. And the state Senate has passed repeal bills by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, in each of the Legislature’s last three sessions.
Yet the penalty remains theoretically possible in Washington. The Supreme Court found the laws unconstitutional but not the penalty itself. The House needs to eliminate the penalty completely and pass Carlyle’s bill or a similar repeal.
The court’s 2018 decision found Washington’s death penalty had been “administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The court evidence found black defendants were 4½ times more likely to face death sentences than white ones, and noted that since 2000, the penalty has been sought only in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg concluded that capital punishment “is simply not worth the time, the money, nor the delay in the delivery of justice.”
The sentences of the last eight inmates on death row were changed to life terms. But future lawmakers, the court held, could revive capital punishment with a careful rewrite of the statutes. Carlyle’s bill would make that task harder by erasing the entire section of law.
Senate Bill 5339 passed the Senate Jan. 31 with bipartisan support. Its prospects in the House appear favorable. Both the House Public Safety Committee chair, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and new House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, are co-sponsors of an identical House bill.
Jinkins should mark her first year in control of the chamber by putting the death-penalty elimination to a floor vote. She has co-sponsored similar bills in previous legislative sessions and granted them hearings as House Judiciary Committee chair — but withheld executive action that would move the bills out of committee.
Now she holds the gavel for the full chamber, and should push this capricious and biased punishment out of state law.
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