By Eric Stevick, Rikki King and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
EVERETT — The news Tuesday that Gov. Jay Inslee had declared a moratorium on the death penalty hit one Snohomish County family particularly hard.
The parents, brothers and sisters of slain state corrections officer Jayme Biendl had hoped the state quickly would set an execution date for her killer. Inmate Byron Scherf was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder last year and sentenced to death for strangling Biendl in the Washington State Reformatory chapel in 2011.
The family now fears that the governor’s announcement could spare Scherf’s life or at least extend it, depending on how long Inslee is in office.
“All we can hope for is our case doesn’t come up while he is in office and that the next person in office will lift the moratorium,” said Lisa Hamm, Biendl’s sister. “We had been hoping to get it over with as soon as possible.”
If Scherf’s death sentence eventually was lifted, it would be like letting him “get away with murder,” Hamm said.
“There is no doubt about Scherf’s guilt or how he did it or any of the details about the case,” she said. “Sitting through the trial was the second-hardest thing I have had to do in my life. Losing Jayme and going to her funeral was the first.”
Republicans who back the death penalty didn’t like the decision, or that Inslee made it without engaging the Legislature.
“Personally, I think it’s kind of an insult to the families of the victims,” said Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, whose district includes the state prison where Biendl was slain.
“As a state this has been our policy. He’s kind of playing politics,” Pearson said. “It would have been nice if maybe he would have talked to us before making the decision.”
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee through which bills abolishing the death penalty must pass, called the ban “shortsighted” and criticized the governor for “going off on his own” without support of the Legislature.
He also said it’s unfair to relatives of homicide victims if a death sentence isn’t carried out after all the years of legal wrangling.
“They have gone through 10 years or more of waiting,” he said. “For the governor to unilaterally take that away I think is wrong.”
Liberal Democrats cheered the news and hope it energizes legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“I believe the death penalty is below us as a civilized society and I look forward to a respectful, authentic public conversation about legislation on this issue,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has sponsored a bill eliminating the death penalty in each of the last five sessions.
The announcement Tuesday also drew reactions from people who work in criminal justice and with the victims of violent crimes.
Washington Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, whose 34-year career began with a tour of duty on death row, said the governor’s rationale is “consistent with my experience.”
The governor’s action won’t change anything for the nine inmates on death row at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, he said. The state will still be paying about $150 a day to keep them segregated from the general prison population, he said.
Warner declined to answer how he thought Inslee’s decision will be received by corrections officers and whether he worried inmates might feel they can act against employees with impunity.
“I think it is a very difficult situation,” he said. “The governor’s decision is not about any individual. It is about the death penalty process itself.”
Katie Ross, the director of the Washington Death Penalty Assistance Center, called Inslee’s decision, “the right thing to do.”
More than 275 people in Washington are serving life without parole for aggravated murder convictions, she said. They have fewer appeal options and are cheaper to house than those on death row.
Capital punishment is applied too arbitrarily, she said. Ross wished the governor would have included a racial component in his speech, she said.
Nobody in Washington has ever been executed for a violent crime against a black person, she said, though people of color statistically are more likely to be victims of homicide.
Jim Lobsenz, vice president of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Inslee made a common-sense decision that puts the impetus on the Legislature.
Lobsenz added that the coalition already had marshaled its volunteers to lobby for abolition bills with lawmakers in Olympia Wednesday, without any prior knowledge of the governor’s pending announcement.
“It would seem like now would be an exceptionally good time for the Legislature to pick up the ball,” Lobsenz said.
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys on Tuesday was questioning the legal impacts of the announcement, Executive Secretary Tom McBride said. Prosecutors are sworn to uphold the law, he said.
“In pursuing potential death penalty cases under Washington’s existing law, we carefully scrutinize the evidence and scrupulously adhere to due process. As our state Supreme Court has stated on many occasions — we have not sought, nor obtained, the death penalty in a disproportionate manner,” he said.
McBride noted that clemency is a power given to the governor under the state’s constitution. It remains unclear what would follow a “reprieve decision” other than delaying the resolution of cases, he said.
Death penalty foes called Inslee’s decision a courageous act of leadership.
“I think he’s been incredibly thoughtful in his approach,” said ACLU Legislative Director Shankar Narayan. “This system is broken and we can’t in good conscience continue to put people to death until we have a clear understanding of the system’s flaws which cannot be fixed.”
At least the families of victims will know what to expect, said Mitch Barker, a retired police chief and executive director at the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
The association doesn’t take a stance on the death penalty as a policy issue, Barker said. Its members — hundreds of law-enforcement executives from around the state — would likely offer “a lot of varied opinion,” he said.
“As far as the governor’s decision, whether we agree with it or don’t agree with it, what we commend him for is he is telling us right upfront where he is going to stand on this,” Barker said. “We think that’s a lot better than waiting case-by-case.”
Most local police chiefs in Snohomish County declined to comment Tuesday on the announcement.
“The obligation of law enforcement is to bring criminals to justice, not to decide on or impose penalties or punishments,” Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell said. “That responsibility lies with the courts and the elected representatives who serve the citizens as lawmakers.”
For crime victims and their families, such major shifts in policy can open old wounds, no matter their personal beliefs on capital punishment, said Marge Jubie Martin, executive director at Victim Support Services, based in Everett. The organization offers advocacy services to 1,400 victims and families every year throughout Western Washington.
They work with families impacted by homicide who are on both sides of the capital punishment debate, she said.
Major public conversations like those stirred by Tuesday’s announcement can cause a fresh wave of grief for survivors, she said. That’s especially true after a trial, which already is a long, arduous process for families.
“It’s a tough thing for them to have to deal with again,” she said. “We support the victims that come in here, no matter what they need and no matter what their perspective.”
Reporter Chris Winters contributed to this story.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.