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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."

Washington Senate Votes To Repeal Death Penalty

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Gov. Inslee speaks with reporters alongside Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle after the Senate voted to abolish the death penalty.

In a vote unprecedented in modern times in the state of Washington, the state Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty and instead impose life in prison without the possibility of parole for those convicted of aggravated first degree murder.

“I have no sympathy for people that kill people,” said Republican Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla, where Washington’s death row is located, who was the prime sponsor of the legislation. “That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this maybe because I feel like it’s somewhat our responsibility as legislators to vet these issues here in this forum in this venue.”

Other Republicans stood to oppose ending capital punishment in Washington.

“I have no trust in the judiciary that life without parole really means life without parole,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler.

The final vote in favor of repeal was 26 to 22 with five Republicans voting with the majority and a handful of Democrats voting no.

After the vote, Gov. Jay Inslee greeted Democratic sponsors of the measure in the wings of the Senate. He praised lawmakers for their “votes of courage and conviction.”

“I think it reflects an increasing recognition of the public that this is not an effective and certainly an unequal administration of justice and is no longer acceptable in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

In recent years, death penalty repeal bills have gotten a hearing in Olympia, but not a vote. ?

Washington’s current death penalty law was enacted in 1981. Since then, five death row inmates have been executed. The last was Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. He stabbed and strangled 21-year-old Holly Washa in 1991 in King County.

In 2014, Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions in Washington. Then in 2016, Inslee issued a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore, who raped and murdered his girlfriend’s 14-year old daughter, Kristy Lynn Ohnstad, in 1995.

Washington is one of four states currently with a moratorium on executions. The death penalty has been abolished or overturned by the courts in 19 states, including most recently in Delaware.

Currently, there are eight people on death row in Washington, including Byron Eugene Scherf, who was already serving a life without parole sentence when he strangled to death correctional officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex in 2011.

Republican amendments to retain capital punishment for the murder of police officers and correctional officers were ruled outside the scope and object of the repeal measure and, as a result, not debated.

The repeal bill now goes to the Washington House.

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."