Some key Republican lawmakers took Gov. Jay Inslee to task Wednesday for declaring a moratorium a day earlier on executing murderers. But other legislators from the South Sound are welcoming the debate that Inslee’s decision will bring in the next year in a lead-up to what could become a serious look at the death penalty by the Legislature.
Olympia, of course, was an epicenter of death-penalty debate in the 1990s when convicted killer Mitchell Rupe challenged his sentence – to die by hanging – on grounds it could decapitate him. Rupe, who weighed over 400 pounds at the time, won his federal case in 1994, spurring the Legislature to change the presumed manner of execution from hanging to lethal injection.
Rupe, who died in 2006, ultimately won a lasting legal reprieve in 2000 when a Thurston County jury voted 11-1 in favor of putting him to death. That third sentencing trial followed the federal court ruling setting aside his second death-penalty verdict. Cost for Rupe’s third round of challenges hit close to $1.1 million including the trial, and Inslee cited costs as well as delays in his announcement.
“I think it was bold and brave and I applaud him for doing it,’’ Rep. Sam Hunt, a liberal Democrat from Olympia, said of Inslee.
Two other South Sound lawmakers whose districts overlap Thurston County had opposite views about the appropriateness of the death penalty – and had more complicated views of what Inslee’s action means.
Republican Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm is a supporter of the death penalty, and he said the timing of Inslee’s announcement caught everyone by surprise. Wilcox questioned why the decision came at this time and also what impact Inslee’s decision might have on families of victims in death penalty cases.
“Jay is the one who has to look in the mirror,’’ Wilcox said, not wanting to second guess what the governor had to weigh.
Looking ahead, Wilcox said, “It appears to me you should try to resolve this in the long run and do what causes the least pain to victim families.”
“I disagree with the death penalty. I think if you kill somebody you kill somebody” no matter whose life is taken, said Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton, who represents the 35th district and lives in the same town Rupe did.
Haigh said that the killers in these kinds of cases need to be kept off the street. But she expressed support for Inslee’s effort and said “it does keep us in the conversation nationally” about whether to allow executions.
Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser, who represents Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and north Thurston County, said her opinion about the death penalty has evolved over a long period of time. The Thurston County lawmaker has served more than 24 years in the Legislature having joined the House in the 1980s when she was a supporter of capital punishment.
As she came to learn more about it she became less sure – eventually coming out in opposition to executions – and even proposing one year to save money in the budget by abolishing them, Fraser said.
On Tuesday, Fraser welcomed Inslee’s moratorium on executions, which runs through the remainder of his term, which runs through January 2017. Fraser said she once toured the Washington State Penitentiary to learn more about the topic and she thinks the legal fights that drag out for years over executions are too costly.
“I think his actions are justified,’’ Fraser said of Inslee, who has come under criticism by some Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma, Rep. Jay Rodne of Snoqualmie and Sen. Kirk Pearson of Monroe.
Those lawmakers questioned Inslee’s legal authority, and O’Ban introduced a bill Wednesday that would bar the governor from issuing universal reprieves – or a moratorium – without first going through the clemency and pardons board.
Fraser said two factors are important to consider. One is that it is possible to hold a killer in prison without possibility of parole as an alternative sentence for first degree aggravated murder. She also said there is unequal application of the death penalty, so that some of the most heinous killers have eluded the death penalty in Washington.
“It’s a little bit arbitrary who is subjected to it. So the Green River killer gets off? Really?” Fraser said.
Gary Ridgway, who entered a plea agreement in 2003, helped King County police close 48 of his murders of women in the 1980s and 1990s. The plea agreement likely spared his life, according to news accounts.
Since then, Ridgway claimed even more murders - more than 70 overall.
O’Ban said Wednesday that ending the death penalty would take such a tool away from prosecutors and police in the future, which in this case provided closure to families.