Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Governor Won't Sign Death Warrants

Oregon Department of Corrections
File photo of Oregon's execution chamber.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has announced a de facto moratorium on the death penalty.

His announcement Tuesday follows a similar move by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in 2011. 

As a member of Congress, Inslee opposed efforts to repeal the death penalty. But now he says he’s re-evaluated that position and concluded Washington’s death penalty is flawed and imperfect.

“If a death penalty case comes to my desk for action, I will issue a reprieve,” Inslee says.

A reprieve does not convert the sentence to life without parole. And it is reversible. An inmate who gets a reprieve from Inslee could still have his death warrant signed by a future governor.

Inslee says he decided on this approach after a months-long review that included a visit to Washington’s death chamber in Walla Walla.

“The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the size of the county’s budget involved where the crime occurred,” says the governor

Inslee also called the death penalty costly and said there’s no credible evidence it serves as a deterrent.

Frank Holden of Pocatello, Idaho has been grieving the death of his 12-year old daughter for more than two decades. He’s been waiting nearly that long for her killer -- Jonathan Lee Gentry -- to be executed.

He thought that wait might finally be coming to an end. Then about 7 p.m. Monday night he got a courtesy call from Governor Jay Inslee telling him about the moratorium.

“I told him I was very disappointed in him doing this and pretty much said there were no more words for us to be talking about,” says Holden.

Holden’s daughter Cassie was visiting her mother in Bremerton when she was bludgeoned to death by Gentry. Her father says the governor’s moratorium comes just as he thought an execution date was nearing.

“I think his decision has prolonged my agony, not shortened it," says Holden. "It’s reopened a lot of wounds.”

Washington currently has nine inmates on death row. Inslee says he hopes his moratorium sparks a discussion about capital punishment in Washington.

State Representative Rueven Carlyle, a Democrat who’s sponsored legislation to repeal the death penalty, praised the governor’s move.

“He has opened a legitimate conversation that gives the legislature the ability to not only bring legislation forward in the coming years in a very thoughtful way, but to step up to engage the public in that conversation,” he says.

The lead Republican on the House Judiciary Committee had a very different response. In a statement, Representative Jay Rodne said “The governor’s decision is a distraction from the issues” and one that “prolongs closure” for the victims.

Meanwhile, prosecutors note the law hasn’t changed. If they get a new aggravated murder case, the death penalty is still an option. But, of course, all executions are now indefinitely halted.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."