For the more than 30 years since Washington’s death penalty was reinstated, state lawmakers have debated whether to abolish it.
That didn’t change this year when Rep. Reuven Carlyle introduced his seventh bill to keep criminals in prison for life and off death row. But this year’s push, amidst a death penalty moratorium, has more bipartisan support.
House Bill 1739 has 17 sponsors, including two Republicans. Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, has long supported eliminating the death penalty, but this year’s bill also has support from Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah. Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia is sponsoring the Senate version.
Families of murder victims, law enforcement, bill sponsors and a former death row inmate were among those who testified Wednesday before a House committee on the bill.
The death penalty, Carlyle said, fails to deter homicide and is much more costly than life in prison. “There are incredible implications, not just for our state and for our society, but for the choices we are making for the justice system, public safety and how we choose to spend the public’s hard-earned tax dollars,” the Seattle Democrat said. “Regardless of your view, the death penalty struggles to justify itself finally.”
Rep. Jay Rodne, Snoqualmie Republican and House Judiciary’s ranking GOP member, told sponsors he doesn’t think cost is enough to justify abolishing a punishment that he says gives justice to families. “The cost argument is a red herring, it’s disingenuous,” he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on the death penalty last February. He did not vacate sentences of the nine men currently on death row in Washington, but announced none would be executed while he’s in office.
The state sentenced Washington’s most recent death row inmate after Inslee took office. Byron Scherf, an inmate who killed corrections officer Jayme Biendl while she was on duty at a Monroe prison in 2011, was sent to death row in May 2013.
Inslee issued a statement in support of the measure following Wednesday’s hearing. “Capital punishment is a complex and emotional issue with very strong feelings on both sides and it’s important to have civil discussions like we saw today,” he said.
The niece of Delbert Belton, the 88-year-old World War II veteran who was killed by two Spokane teenagers in 2013, testified in support of the bill. One of the boys was sentenced last month to 20 years in prison.
She told lawmakers she’s thankful her family did not have to go through the process of seeking the death penalty. ”It would reopen this wound again and again,” she said. “It may be the only way I end up remembering my uncle. Instead I end up remembering my found childhood memories of him.”
Only one person testified in opposition to the bill. Mitch Barker, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the death penalty is important leverage for law enforcement.: “Had the death penalty not been available to prosecutors, Gary Ridgway would never had admitted what he’d done,” he said.
If the bill passes, Washington would follow 18 states in abolishing the death penalty. Washington has a long legacy of banning and re-imposing a death penalty. The state reinstated the death penalty most recently in 1981. Since then, 33 people have been sentenced to death, but only five have been executed. Altogether, the state has executed 78 people since 1904.