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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."

Death Penalty Repeal Will Get Hearing, No Vote In Washington Legislature

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
File photo of the lethal injection room at California's San Quentin State Prison.

A bipartisan proposal to repeal the death penalty in Washington state will get a hearing Wednesday morning. But the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee said there’s no plan to hold a vote on the measure.

Judiciary Chair Laurie Jinkins is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1935 to replace the death penalty with life without parole. The bill was introduced at the request of Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

But Jinkins said repeal remains a politically fraught issue in Washington.

“There still is a lot of trepidation about moving forward when you’re not going to end up with the bill reaching the governor’s desk,” she said.

That’s why Jinkins said she will not try to move the repeal bill out of her committee before a Friday cut-off deadline. Still, she said there’s value in holding a public hearing because it advances the repeal conversation in Washington.

“We can help start and continue a dialogue about a topic and it seems like this one is a really worthwhile one to do that,” Jinkins said.

There are indications that support for repeal in Washington is growing. In January, Ferguson was joined by former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, at a press conference to announce this year’s repeal effort. Two Republican state senators, Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia, also participated and are sponsoring a companion repeal measure in the Senate -- also at the request of Ferguson.

But the Republican chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Mike Padden, said he has no plans to hold a hearing on the Senate bill.

“I will consider holding a hearing on the death penalty if and when the House passes it first,” Padden said in an emailed statement.

Jinkins clearly views Padden, who supports the death penalty, as a roadblock to repeal.

“I think the challenge in the legislative sense is until you get kind of a détente about the topic of the death penalty, meaning that both the House and the Senate agree to hearings and that they will move the bill along if there are votes to do that, then we’re not going to be able to move it along,” Jinkins said.

Jinkins added that she believes there are the votes in both the Washington House and Senate to abolish the death penalty if brought to the floor of each chamber for a vote.

But in the end it could be the Washington Supreme Court that strikes down the death penalty. The court is currently considering a case involving death row inmate Allen Eugene Gregory, who is black. Death penalty opponents including the ACLU have argued in that case that Washington’s system of capital punishment is arbitrary and disproportionately imposed on African Americans who make up a very small percentage of the state’s population.

Of the 78 people executed in Washington since 1904, 66 were white and 7 were black. The death penalty in Washington was briefly abolished in the mid-1970s.

The state currently has eight men on death row. However, executions are on hold because of a 2014 moratorium imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat. A similar moratorium is in place in Oregon.

Last December, Inslee granted his first reprieve to death row inmate Clark Richard Elmore who raped and killed 14-year-old Kristy Ohnstad in Bellingham in 1995.

The last execution in Washington was in 2010. Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Holly Washa of Burien.

In 2003, serial killer Gary Ridgway was spared the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to the murders of 48 women and helping authorities find the remains of some of his still missing victims.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 19 states have abolished or had the death penalty overturned, most recently Delaware in 2016.

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."