Abolition of death penalty gets closer to reality as bill clears Washington state Senate

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2008, file photo, the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown with the witness gallery behind glass at right, in Walla Walla, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2008, file photo, the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown with the witness gallery behind glass at right, in Walla Walla, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) AP

Efforts to eliminate Washington’s death penalty in the 2018 legislative session continued to break new ground Wednesday when a bill banning the practice passed the Senate.

The 26-22 vote marks the latest — and what some lawmakers say is the strongest — push to repeal the death penalty as a possible punishment for aggravated first-degree murder. That punishment would be replaced with life without parole if the bill is signed into law.

“All people deserve to live,” said state Sen. Mark Miloscia, a Republican from Federal Way, during an emotional floor debate on the measure Wednesday. Milosica said he supports the bill in part because of his Catholic faith.

Senate Bill 6052 now heads to the state House for consideration.

Two amendments to restrict but not eliminate the death penalty proposed by Republican lawmakers were struck down prior to the final vote. One would have kept the penalty as a possibility for those found guilty of murder of a law enforcement officer while the other would have kept it for the murder of a correctional officer.

The prior amendment would have applied to the killer of Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Daniel McCartney, who died last month after being shot while responding to a 911 call. The same goes for people like Maurice Clemmons, who killed four Lakewood police officers in 2009 before being shot to death by a Seattle police officer days later.

“I believe if Maurice Clemmons had lived, he would be on death row,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon during floor debate Wednesday. Sheldon is a conservative Democrat from Potlatch who caucuses with Republicans.

Another amendment that was struck down would have passed the question of abolishing capital punishment to Washington residents in a public initiative — the same process residents used to uphold the death penalty in 1975.

Senate Republicans were divided on the measure — five GOP lawmaker voted in favor of ending the penalty.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center, said she could understand concerns from other lawmakers that the death penalty is too costly to justify keeping. Largely due to legal fees in the appeal process, the death penalty costs an average $1 million more per case than life imprisonment in Washington, according to a 2015 Seattle University study of state convictions.

But she said she believes a life sentence is not enough punishment for people who commit certain serious crimes.

“While I see the fiscal argument, the justice piece is diminished by a life sentence and so I couldn’t support it,” Rivers said in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian.

Five Democratic lawmakers — counting the conservative Sheldon — joined the Republicans to vote against the bill.

State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle, supported the measure and said in an interview that the death penalty should be abolished for all cases.

“I share the moral outrage at murdering law enforcement who put their lives on the line for us, but I think the deeper moral conviction of this work is to strive to be philosophically consistent,” Carlyle said.

Washington lawmakers have tried to abolish the death penalty in the past five years, but those efforts failed to make it out of committee. Some lawmakers credit this year’s success with a change in leadership in the committee that heard the bill in the Senate.

When Democrats won control of the Senate through a special election in 2017, the Law and Justice Committee’s former chair state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, was replaced by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said before the start of this legislative session that he’d like to see the death penalty eliminated in 2018.

Inslee told reporters Wednesday the vote 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.”

In 2014, Inslee placed a moratorium on the death penalty, suspending the practice for as long as he’s in office.

Under current state law, people found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder can be put to death by hanging or lethal injection. The most recent execution took place in 2010 when Cal Coburn Brown, who was convicted for the 1991 rape and murder of 21 year-old Holly Washa, was put to death by lethal injection.

Advocates for capital punishment have argued the sentence can be a useful negotiating tool against some of the state’s most egregious offenders. They point to the 1991 conviction of Gary Ridgway as an example. Ridgway — also known as the Green River killer — agreed to tell prosecutors the whereabouts of the bodies of some of his undiscovered victims in exchange for life imprisonment.

County prosecutors in Washington have since backed away from the strategy, advocating for reform and saying the death penalty is costly and ineffective as a crime deterrent.

Critics of the death penalty have long scrutinized the practice as a high-stakes arm of an imperfect justice system that can — and has — executed innocent people. More than 150 individuals nationwide have been exonerated from death row since 1973, according to data from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

One of those cases occurred in Washington state. Benjamin Harris was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Jimmie Lee Turner, a Tacoma auto mechanic, only to have the charges dropped on appeal 11 years later.

Five states — New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland — have since 2007 passed legislation to eliminate their death penalty.

Calling for Washington to join those five states, GOP Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said during the Senate floor debate Wednesday that preventing innocent people from being put to death is reason enough to repeal the sentence.

“We’ve made some mistakes and put innocent people to death,” Walsh said. “And we frankly, again, are in a very disproportionate world where certain applications of justice are applied to some but not the others.”

Staff reporter Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.