Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s proposal to repeal the death penalty in Washington came with a bipartisan flourish that isn’t often seen at the Capitol. But getting legislators to end executions could face steep odds in Olympia.
OLYMPIA — For years, bills to repeal Washington state’s death penalty have landed in the Legislature only to fade away before lawmakers ever faced a vote.
A bipartisan show of force on Jan. 16 was meant to change that.
Announcing a new push to end executions in Washington, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson played master of ceremonies, bringing up elected officials from all across the state to speak on why they’d like to see an end to state-sanctioned executions.
There was former Democrat turned Republican Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, citing his Catholic faith and paraphrasing Pope Francis.
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There was the always-eloquent Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, arguing the “profound moral implications” of a repeal, before introducing the more homespun Sen. Maureen Walsh, who cited her fiscal conservatism as a reason to end the practice.
Walsh is a Republican from Walla Walla, whose district is home to Washington State Penitentiary and its death row, where eight inmates now sit. If and when the time for execution comes, those men have a choice: death by lethal injection or by hanging.
Perhaps most striking at the news conference was Ferguson’s predecessor, former Attorney General Rob McKenna, the Republican who in 2012 ran for governor. McKenna stood not far from his competitor in that contest, Gov. Jay Inslee, who in 2014 put a moratorium on executions.
In an interview last week, Ferguson said that he hoped the combination of McKenna’s presence and the weight of the attorney general requesting legislation would lend momentum to the discussion.
“I’ve become increasingly frustrated that the Legislature refuses to take any kind of vote on this issue,” Ferguson said.
The latest push comes from “a broader, deeper bipartisan coalition than you’ve had before,” McKenna said in an interview. “I think because it is broader, deeper and stronger, that there’s going to be more pressure successfully applied to bring the measure up to a vote.”
But the effort may not be strong enough to spur action in Olympia, where lawmakers have been reluctant to vote on the death penalty. There’s no guarantee a bill would get a hearing in a legislative committee — a step secured by at least two recent repeal proposals that failed.
Any repeal would have to succeed against death-penalty supporters — including two key Senate Republicans.
And countering arguments that the death penalty is costly to the state, some supporters of the punishment suggest instead streamlining the legal process.
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, a deputy with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, is one of those.
“I have seen the horrific, and I do mean horrific, things people do to each other when they commit homicides,” said Klippert. While he certainly doesn’t want innocent people wrongly put to death, Klippert said, executions should ideally represent “swift and sure justice.”
If it came to a vote, lawmakers would have to brace themselves for the possibility of public criticism. In a 1975 public vote on the death penalty, Washington by a wide margin signaled its support for executions. Initiative 316 that year, calling for the death penalty in cases of aggravated murder, passed with nearly 70 percent approval.
Of course, the debate has changed since then. A 2016 national poll by Pew Research showed the death penalty with the lowest support in 40 years.
Longtime Washington state pollster Stuart Elway said a majority of voters here may now oppose the death penalty.
But that doesn’t necessarily make a repeal any easier to pass.
“I think it’s one of those things where the people who are for it, are for the death penalty, are pretty strong and vocal, but I don’t think they’re in the majority,” Elway said. “So it’s sort of intensity on one side, versus numbers on the other side.”
He added, “And as we all know, intensity often wins in legislative debates.”
Calling for a vote
Washington’s current death penalty has been in place since 1981. Under that law, only those convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree can be sentenced to execution, and only after a special hearing has determined that death is warranted.
Inslee in 2014 put a moratorium on the death penalty. The practice, he said, is applied unequally in Washington, is too costly when factoring in the appeals process, and doesn’t deter future murderers.
Since executions are still part of state law, Inslee is using his executive authority to issue reprieves for those whose executions come up on death row.
The governor issued one such reprieve a few weeks ago, to Clark Richard Elmore. Elmore had been convicted of raping and killing Kristy Ohnstad, his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, in 1995 in Bellingham.
Elmore will instead remain in prison for the rest of his life.
McKenna and others cited the high costs of the long appeals processes for inmates awaiting execution.
“These cases cost millions and millions and millions of dollars,” McKenna said at the news conference. The Attorney General’s Office has two full-time attorneys to handle the work of the eight offenders on death row, he added.
For Ferguson, just seeing the death-penalty repeal get a public hearing and a committee vote would be a way to advance the debate, compared to years past.
“I would like to see a vote in a committee this session,” said Ferguson, adding that he plans to meet with legislative leaders to make his case and hear their concerns.
The divide over the death penalty extends beyond lawmakers. Washington’s county prosecutors also remain split over executions.
In 2015, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys announced that it would like to see a public vote on the death penalty.
The association still holds that position, executive secretary Tom McBride wrote last week in an email, adding there’s still a “healthy divide” among prosecutors.
Getting a hearing
Legislative leaders haven’t yet promised a hearing on proposals to repeal the death penalty in either the House or the Senate.
Miloscia has sponsored SB 5354. Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, is expected to sponsor the House version.
In the meantime, each party is pointing to the other as a reason to take no action.
In the GOP-held Senate, Sen. Mike Padden said he would give the proposal a legislative hearing only if it first moved through the Democrat-controlled House.
“I want to see if it has support in the House,” said Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
“I’m not a zealot for it, but I support it in some extreme cases,” he said of the death penalty.
Another key Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, also supports the death penalty.
Republicans control the Senate by only one vote. Since at least two GOP senators favor a repeal, the idea has been raised that a bill could bypass committee by being yanked to the floor for a full vote.
But Miloscia said this week he isn’t interested in rebelling from his Republican peers to go that route.
Meanwhile, Padden’s assurance of a committee hearing isn’t much encouragement for Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Jinkins describes herself as “strongly supportive” of a repeal. But her priority is to move bills through Judiciary that have a strong chance of being approved in both chambers of the Legislature, Jinkins said.
While she hopes to hold a public hearing, Jinkins said she isn’t yet certain on it.
It would be a different matter, she added, if Republican leaders assured her a death-penalty repeal would get not only a hearing, but also committee and floor votes in the Senate.
Lawmakers may indeed be willing to vote on the death penalty, according to McKenna, but don’t want to take a tough vote without knowing the issue will go all the way to the governor’s desk.
“Many legislators don’t want to take a ‘hero’s vote,’ ” said McKenna, who added that he has heard feedback from both opponents and supporters of the death penalty since the news conference.
And there’s no certainty that the House, which Democrats control by a 50-48 split, would approve an end to executions.
House Democrats in the past have had differing opinions on repealing the law, according House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “It’s a very emotional issue,” Sullivan said last week, “and something that we’re going to have to talk through.”
One Republican House member, Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, has signaled his support for a repeal. But it’s hard to know how many others might support ending executions.
“It’s perceived as being weak on crime on the Republican side,” said Chad Magendanz, a former GOP representative from Issaquah.
Some conservatives “really think that the modern criminal-justice system has gotten kind of soft,” added Magendanz, who supports a repeal and also attended Ferguson’s news conference.
Ferguson hopes lawmakers may at least show Washingtonians whether they support the death penalty.
“I think it’s important that elected officials take votes on the difficult issues of the day — look, up or down,” he said, adding later: “Hey, tell the people what you think.”