Some state lawmakers want to abolish the death penalty, although their proposal faces strong opposition.

Share story

Add another controversial social issue to the Legislature’s growing agenda: Abolishing the death penalty.

Supporters of that cause will convene in Olympia Wednesday to rally behind state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, and other lawmakers trying to end capital punishment in Washington.

Regala knows what it’s like to want justice for a violent crime. The Tacoma Democrat said her brother-in-law was killed in 1980 and his body dumped in a Seattle park. The killer was never found, she said.

“It’s still painful and hard for me to talk about because the hurt never goes away,” Regala said, “but executing that person doesn’t solve that problem for me.”

Her proposal’s prospects seem dim this year, especially in a key House committee. Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, says he will withhold his vote, effectively blocking it unless his fellow Democrats can persuade a Republican to join them.

Kirby says the Legislature is taking up too many divisive issues this year, including same-sex marriage, charter schools, tax increases and marijuana legalization.

Capital punishment is rare in Washington. Since the current law was passed in 1981, just five people have been executed, most recently Cal Coburn Brown in 2010 for the rape and murder of Holly Washa in SeaTac.

“De facto right now, we don’t have a death penalty in the state of Washington,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.

Carrell said capital punishment is little more than a “bargaining chip” for prosecutors to use to force plea deals. But he thinks it’s crucial for prosecutors to have that threat, which was used, for example, to force Green River killer Gary Ridgway to reveal the locations of some of his victims’ bodies. Ridgway is serving a life sentence.

Opposing executions are the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of advocates planning to lobby lawmakers and testify at a public hearing Wednesday. Opponents point to death sentences around the country that have been overturned upon finding new evidence.

Some states have rethought capital punishment. Last year Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber put a halt to executions.

In a time of budget cuts, opponents note the cost of capital cases. A 2006 study by the Washington State Bar Association found the death penalty can add more than $700,000 to court costs in a murder case.

And Brown’s execution cost about $100,000, according to the Department of Corrections — though it did avoid keeping him imprisoned any longer at a cost of more than $42,000 a year.