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Death Penalty Repeal Introduced At Washington Legislature

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced legislation to end the death penalty on Monday, flanked by a bipartisan cast of supporters.

A bipartisan group of Washington state politicians Monday endorsed the abolishment of the death penalty. The group included the current Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna.

The pair were flanked at a capitol news conference by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and a half-dozen senators and representatives from both parties.

It being Martin Luther King Day, Ferguson quoted Dr. King to make his case.

"He said capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology and above all, against the highest expression of love and the nature of God,” Ferguson said. “It's time for Washington state to act."

Ferguson said his office has drafted legislation to replace the death penalty for aggravated murder with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. As now written, the legislation would not retroactively apply to current death row inmates. There are currently eight people on Washington's death row.

The speakers who followed Ferguson to the lectern gave a variety of different reasons for supporting abolishment of the death penalty.

McKenna said "endless appeals" and decades-long delays in carrying out death sentences demonstrated to him that "the system is broken."

"When it is impossible to carry out as a penalty for all intents and purposes, it is time to move off and move to common ground," McKenna said. "I think life without parole represents that common ground."

Democratic state Rep. Tina Orwall said she was haunted by the many stories from other states of death sentences improperly handed down on defendants who were later exonerated.

In 2014, Inslee unilaterally announced a moratorium on imposition of the death penalty. That did not change the death sentences of the murderers at the state penitentiary, but means there will be no executions while Inslee holds office.

"Death penalty sentences are unequally applied, overturned and always costly," the governor said when he listed his reasons for seeking outright abolishment Monday.

Last month, Inslee reprieved death row inmate Clark Elmore to forestall the convict's execution. Elmore was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Whatcom County. 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. Elmore remains at the state prison in Walla Walla.

Death penalty repeal bills are introduced nearly every session of the Washington Legislature and typically go nowhere. For this year to be different, Democrats and Republicans would have to work together to steamroll some powerful committee chairmen.

The Republican chair and vice chair of the state Senate Law and Justice Committee support the death penalty. State Senator Steve O'Ban, the vice chair, said the high cost of death penalty prosecutions and appeals is a problem, but not a reason to end capital punishment.

"We shouldn't abolish the death penalty," O'Ban argued. "The death penalty frankly, is the only penalty that equivalently punishes the terrible tragedy when someone takes innocent, unique human life."

Through a legislative spokesman, Senate Law and Justice Chair Mike Padden said his position is unchanged. If and when the Washington House passes a death penalty bill, Padden would consider holding a hearing on the measure.  But the House has to make the first move, he said through his spokesman.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.