Death penalty halted in state; Inslee announces moratorium

  • By Jerry Cornfield, Diana Hefley and Chris Winters Herald Writers
  • Tuesday, February 11, 2014 5:14pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday imposed a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Washington, putting an end to executions for at least as long as he holds office.

“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served,” Inslee said. “The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”

A total of nine people now are sentenced to die for crimes in Washington. The only case from Snohomish County is Byron Scherf, an inmate who received a death sentence last year for the 2011 strangling of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl. Scherf already was serving a life sentence when he attacked Biendl. The verdict and sentence now are undergoing mandatory review.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said he heard rumors Monday that Inslee might be announcing a change for the death penalty in Washington. His office contacted Biendl’s family to give them some notice, although at the time he didn’t know what Inslee planned to say.

Roe said he believes the governor’s decision ultimately will have no bearing on Scherf’s case.

“It’s reasonably unlikely that our case would reach the governor’s desk while he’s still governor,” Roe said. “I’m not sure what, if any legal effect his announcement will have on that case.”

Roe said his office will keep fighting any appeals. He said he is grateful that Inslee announced his intention before the governor was asked to sign any death warrants. He also was encouraged that Inslee said he wasn’t planning to commute or overturn any convictions.

“He was clear, I think, and what he was saying was ‘not on my watch,’” Roe said.

Meanwhile, Roe said he continues to support the death penalty for some crimes.

“I believe the majority of people in this state would agree it should be an option and imposed in some cases,” Roe said.

Bill Jaquette welcomed Inslee’s decision. The longtime executive director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association opposes capital punishment.

“Morally speaking, I don’t think it should happen,” Jaquette said. Legally, “it’s seriously flawed” and relies on a “crazy patchwork of rulings” that creates an irrational system that results in inequality and disproportionality, he said.

Jaquette represented James Elledge, the last man from Snohomish County to be executed. Elledge declined to fight the death penalty and jurors never heard reasons he potentially deserved leniency.

Elledge and others who haven’t fought their capital punishment convictions skew any reasonable test of how the death penalty is applied in the state, Jaquette said.

Inslee said he doesn’t question the guilt or the sentence of anyone on death row, but added that he will issue a reprieve from execution for anyone whose case reaches him during his time as governor.

“The men on death row are going to be in prison for as long as they live. I can give citizens that assurance that they are not going to walk out of jail,” Inslee said.

Inslee, who previously supported capital punishment, said he re-evaluated his position after spending the past year studying the issues, reading the research, and consulting with prosecutors and leaders in law enforcement and corrections.

He said he visited the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla last month and toured the execution chamber. He said he also spoke with relatives of murder victims, some of whom supported his view, and others who did not.

Inslee cited several reasons for his decision. He said that the costs “far outweigh” the costs of locking someone up for life. Those convicted of capital crimes are rarely executed and death sentences “are neither swift nor certain” forcing families to “constantly revisit their grief,” the governor said.

Inslee also said he believes there is no credible evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent.

“I want to acknowledge that there are many good protections built into Washington state’s death penalty law. But there have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment,” Inslee said. “There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”

While Inslee cited the expenses associated with death penalty cases, he admitted his action may not save the state any money if offenders keep filing appeals. He said he hoped county prosecutors might consider not seeking the death penalty, potentially saving money.

It cost about $1.7 million to bring Scherf to trial. Additional costs associated with the appeal are expected. It costs about $122 a day, or about $44,500 a year, to house an inmate at the state penitentiary, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty are an almost annual exercise for some lawmakers. While it’s too late to push a bill through this session, Inslee said he would sign such legislation if it is consistent with his decision.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson weighed in Tuesday afternoon, saying that the governor has the legal “authority to hit the ‘pause’ button on executions in Washington.”

All nine men sentenced to die are challenging their convictions and sentences in state or federal court, Ferguson said. His office is handling the four cases currently in federal court.

“Consistent with the governor’s announcement, the Office of the Attorney General will continue to defend the state against cases brought by death row inmates challenging their convictions and sentences,” Ferguson said.

No executions are scheduled at this time, according to the Department of Corrections.

The person with the longest tenure on the state’s death row is Jonathan Lee Gentry. He was sentenced to die in 1991 for the killing of Cassie Holden, 12, in Kitsap County.

Gentry last month failed to convince the state Supreme Court to intervene on his behalf. A federal stay in his case, entered in 1999, was vacated last week. Gentry had until the middle of this week to file a stay in Washington, seeking the reconsideration of the state high court’s January ruling.

Washington has executed 78 men since 1904. Cal Brown was the last person put to death. He died by lethal injection on Sept. 10, 2010.

Lethal injection and hanging are the two legal methods of execution in the state.

Washington’s death penalty has gone through several significant changes over the years. Capital punishment was abolished in 1913, then reinstated in 1919. The law held until 1975, during which time the state executed 58 people. In 1975, the Legislature abolished capital punishment, but later that year an initiative passed, making the death penalty mandatory punishment for aggravated first-degree murder.

The next year, two U.S. Supreme Court cases made it clear that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional. The state Legislature modified the law in 1977, but then the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The current capital punishment law was enacted in 1981. Since then, five inmates have been executed, while 18 cases have been reversed, most being turned into sentences of life without parole.

With Inslee’s announcement Tuesday, Washington becomes the ninth state in recent years to either suspend executions or abolish the death penalty.

The current trend started in 2000 when Illinois’ then-Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on all executions, calling into question the fairness of its application.

In 2003, Ryan commuted all of Illinois’ death-row prisoners to life imprisonment, and in 2008 the Illinois legislature abolished the death penalty.

Since 2007, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Connecticut and Maryland have also abolished the death penalty.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., 32 states, plus the federal government and the U.S. Military, still allow the death penalty.

This includes Washington, Oregon and Colorado, where actions by those states’ governors have called the future of the death penalty into question while keeping statutes on the books.

The center’s executive director Richard Dieter said that while a governor might impose a moratorium, how things play out in future administrations is not predetermined.

“Sometimes these things result in the end of the death penalty, but not always,” Dieter said.

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