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Abolition of death penalty won’t happen in 2019. House Democrats cite other priorities

A bill to eliminate the death penalty from Washington’s statutes won’t reach the governor’s desk to become law this year.

The Senate passed a death-penalty abolition bill on Feb. 15 by a 28-19 margin, but the House did not vote on it by Wednesday’s deadline for non-budget bills to pass from the opposite chamber.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who requested that legislators pass the bill, said Thursday the House had enough votes for approval.

“Simply put, the votes are there. We provided House leadership with a bipartisan list of 54 members committed to voting to abolish Washington’s death penalty. There’s no other way to put it — I’m extremely disappointed,” said Ferguson, a Democrat who is exploring a possible run for governor if Jay Inslee does not seek a third term.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the bill did have “considerable support” in the Democratic-controlled chamber,” but she noted that the “death penalty is illegal at this time” and holding off until next year to vote didn’t involve any risk.

She said House Democratic leaders had to set priorities. Those included passing bills so that individuals no longer will receive life prison sentences for second-degree robbery under the “three strikes” law and parents can sue for the wrongful death of their adult children.

“These have an impact immediately in the next year on people’s lives,” said Stonier, the Majority Floor Leader.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, the Seattle Democrat who was the lead sponsor of SB 5339, said 54 was the minimum number of House members who would have voted yes on the bill. He blamed House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, for not bringing it to a vote by Wednesday’s deadline. The bill also died in the House last year after the Senate approved it.

“This decision rests squarely and unequivocally on the desk of the Speaker. It’s his choice, his decision, and his silence has been deafening,” Carlyle said.

Stonier said House Democratic leaders make many decisions on which bills to bring to the floor as a team, and “some of them, I think, the Speaker makes in his position.”

“As Floor Leader, I can tell you if I had run that bill as much as I really would have liked to and as much as I advocated and pushed to find ways to do it, some other priorities may not have made it off the floor this year,” she said.

The state Supreme Court last year struck down the death penalty law because it was imposed in an “arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The high court stressed that the law — not the death penalty itself — was unconstitutional. The ruling left open the possibility that the Legislature might enact a “carefully drafted” statute to impose capital punishment in this state, but it cannot create a system that offends constitutional rights, Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst wrote.

Carlyle’s bill was intended to slam the door shut on that possibility.

The bill would have codified the Supreme Court’s decision and current practice, which is to sentence those convicted of aggravated first-degree murder to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole. If the measure had become law, legislators also wouldn’t have been able to amend the death penalty statute. Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, tried to do that earlier this year, but his bill never got out of committee.

The last execution in Washington state was in 2010 when the state used lethal injection to put Cal Brown to death for the 1991 murder of a Seattle woman. In 2014, Inslee declared a moratorium on capital punishment. The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are opposed to the death penalty.

When the House Public Safety Committee approved the death penalty bill on April 1, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said lawmakers needed to remove any “uncertainty” about the death penalty’s legal status.

“I do believe that the Legislature should have the last word on this matter, because the Legislature is vested solely with the authority to establish sentences for crimes. My position is that the death penalty should not be an option,” said Goodman, who is the committee chairman.

Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, was among the GOP members who voted against the death penalty bill in committee. Graham took the oath of office in January on the Bible of her sister, Debra, who was murdered by the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway.

“If not for the death penalty, Washington state would not have ever gotten the answers surrounding the most prolific serial killer case in U.S. history. That is an inarguable fact. I take offense to some people saying the death penalty doesn’t work,” she said.

An aide said Graham was unavailable for comment Thursday.

In a Feb. 23 op-ed in The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, Graham wrote that in order to avoid the death penalty, Ridgway agreed in a plea deal with the King County prosecutor to disclose the locations of many of his victims who were missing.

“Victims’ families were finally able to give their loved ones a proper burial,” Graham wrote.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty, either by legislative action or court decision, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit group. It’s unclear how many of those 21 jurisdictions without the death penalty also have the law still on their books like Washington.

Carlyle said he expects the bill will pass next year if there’s a new House speaker. Chopp, the state’s longest-serving speaker, announced last year he would step down from his leadership position after this year’s legislative session but would remain a House member.