State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday announced proposed legislation to abolish Washington’s death penalty. Showing up to support him was a bipartisan group of elected officials that included former GOP Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
OLYMPIA — In announcing a proposal Monday to abolish Washington’s death penalty, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson didn’t stand alone.
At Ferguson’s side were fellow Democrats, among them Gov. Jay Inslee, and several Republicans, including former Attorney General Rob McKenna and two members of the GOP-controlled state Senate.
The message they sought to convey: There is now enough support in Olympia for an earnest conversation about whether to end the death penalty. Lawmakers in recent years have been reluctant to allow votes on bills that would end executions.
Around the country, “Legislatures are acting on this important issue with up-and-down votes,” Ferguson said during the news conference. “And it’s time for Washington, the state Legislature here, to take that vote.”
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The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The latest was Delaware, whose Supreme Court last year declared the state’s death-penalty law unconstitutional.
Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014. In 2015, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for a public vote on whether the state should keep the death penalty.
The prosecutors’ action followed jury decisions in two high-profile cases — the murders of a Carnation family in 2007 and a Seattle police officer in 2009 — not to sentence the killers to death.
With the attorney general’s office officially requesting legislation, Ferguson on Monday said he hoped lawmakers would be spurred to take action.
Joining Ferguson, Inslee and McKenna were Republican Sens. Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia and Democratic Sens. Jamie Pedersen and Reuven Carlyle, and Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Democrat.
Last month, Inslee invoked the moratorium as he gave a reprieve to Clark Elmore, sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of 14-year-old Kristy Ohnstad in Bellingham. Elmore is the first of Washington’s death-row inmates to exhaust his appeals since the moratorium was put in place.
Reprieves aren’t pardons and don’t commute the sentences of those condemned to death. As long as the moratorium is in place, death-row inmates will remain in prison rather than face execution.
Death-penalty appeals are so lengthy that “this is a system in which justice is delayed and delayed to a point where the system is broken,” said McKenna, who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2013, and lost the governor’s race to Inslee in 2012.
“It isn’t working anymore,” McKenna said. “It is time to move on.”
Inslee said capital punishment is a difficult issue, but said he ultimately issued his moratorium “because the evidence is absolutely clear.”
“Death-penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly,” he said. “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.”
The proposed bills, sponsored by Miloscia in the Senate and Orwall in the House, would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandate instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Miloscia, a Democrat turned Republican, cited his Catholic faith in his opposition to executions. Walsh cited the government expenses that add up as death-row inmates go through the appeals process as the reason she wanted to see the practice ended.
Still, the proposal could face steep odds in the Legislature. Miloscia’s 2015 bill to stop executions didn’t get a public hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate Law and Justice Committee — much less a vote.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place and committee vice chairman, said Monday he doesn’t support a death-penalty repeal. O’Ban, however, said he favored at least giving the proposal a hearing.
“I think there are strong arguments to retain the death penalty, and I think it might be a healthy thing to rehear those arguments again,” O’Ban said.
O’Ban said he wanted to look at ways to make the death-penalty appeals process less expensive.
Ferguson’s proposal would not be retroactive, meaning the sentences of Elmore and seven other inmates sentenced to death would not change.
Since 1904, 78 inmates have been put to death in Washington state, all men. The last execution came in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown was put to death by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman.
After spending nearly 17 years on death row, he was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001.
Capital punishment is currently authorized by the federal government and 31 states, including Washington and Oregon, which also has a moratorium in place.
Pennsylvania and Colorado also have death-penalty moratoriums.