Gov. Jay Inslee signed his first reprieve of a death-row convict Thursday, part of his moratorium on Washington’s death penalty.
Inslee signed the reprieve for Clark Richard Elmore, who had been convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, Kristy Ohnstad, in Bellingham in 1995. Elmore will remain in prison for life.
But how the reprieve became public Thursday drew scrutiny from open-government advocates and others.
The governor announced the moratorium in 2014, saying the way the death penalty is applied is too flawed to let more executions go forward. Since executions are still part of state law, any reprieves require that Inslee exercise his authority as governor.
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On Thursday, the governor’s office issued no news release about Elmore’s reprieve and posted nothing on social media. Nor did Inslee’s office notify members of the Capitol press corps.
The governor’s office instead gave a statement to The Bellingham Herald, which posted a story at about 4 p.m. Thursday. Elmore’s execution had been scheduled for Jan. 19. Inslee had the options of granting the reprieve, commuting Elmore’s sentence to life without parole or allowing the execution.
While an Inslee spokeswoman said the governor’s office didn’t hide anything, the move looked to others like a way to bury potentially unpopular news.
“It’s certainly not illegal, what he did,” said David Domke, chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Communication. “But it is intentionally managing the news environment.”
“It smacks more of a Friday-night news dump by a president than it does of a governor in a state where we’re supposed to take government transparency pretty seriously,” added Domke.
The governor’s office has issued news releases in recent months ranging from serious topics such as national health-care policy and the fatal shooting of a Tacoma police officer, to lighter items, like an invitation to a Ghostbusters-themed Halloween party at the Capitol building.
The office decided not to issue a news release on Elmore’s reprieve because the action was “right in line with what the governor was talking about for the last couple of years” on the death penalty, said Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.
“It’s not like we were hiding anything,” said Lee, adding later that a statement was available for any reporter who asked for it.
Lee described her office’s decision not to notify the Olympia press corps — which covers the governor and state Legislature — as an oversight.
On high-interest subjects such as the death penalty, it’s a good idea for elected officials to err on the side of public disclosure, according to Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“There’s no law that requires that; it’s just a fundamental principle of good governance,” said Nixon, a member of the Kirkland City Council.
Last week, Inslee met with Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran, who had asked to meet with the governor when Elmore’s appeals ran out. The U.S. Supreme Court in October declined to hear his appeal.
For about a half-hour, McEachran said, he implored the governor to focus on how the teenage girl suffered and to allow Elmore’s execution.