By Rachel La Corte
OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday announced a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.
Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014, but repeal bills introduced since that time have stalled in the Legislature. Ferguson said that he hoped with the attorney general’s office officially requesting legislation, it would help elevate the conversation among lawmakers.
Inslee and Ferguson were joined by former Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, Republican Sens. Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia and Democratic Sens. Jamie Pedersen and Reuven Carlyle and Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Democrat. Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate and Democrats hold a slight majority in the House.
“This issue transcends politics,” Ferguson said.
Last month, Inslee invoked the moratorium as he gave a reprieve to Clark Elmore, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Elmore is the first of Washington’s death row inmates to exhaust his appeals since the moratorium was put in place.
Reprieves aren’t pardons and don’t commute the sentences of those condemned to death. As long as the moratorium is in place, death-row inmates will remain in prison rather than face execution.
Inslee said that capital punishment is a difficult issue, but said he ultimately issued his moratorium “because the evidence is absolutely clear.”
“Death penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly,” he said. “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.”
McKenna said that death penalty appeals are so lengthy that “this is a system in which justice is delayed and delayed to a point where the system is broken.
“It isn’t working anymore,” he said. “It is time to move on.”
The proposed bills, sponsored by Miloscia in the Senate and Orwall in the House, would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandate instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. The law, however, would not be retroactive, meaning the sentences of eight inmates sentenced to death would not change.
There is now just one person from Snohomish County living under a death sentence. Byron Scherf was sentenced to die for the 2011 strangulation of corrections officer Jayme Biendl in the prison chapel at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. The repeat rapist was serving a life sentence at the time of the murder.
Snohomish County prosecutors have not sought the death penalty since Inslee’s moratorium. However, they’ve made clear that the decisions were driven by the facts of each case, not the governor’s position on capital punishment.
Six people from Snohomish County are among the 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904. The last execution in the state came in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman. After spending nearly 17 years on death row, he was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001.
Capital punishment is currently authorized by the federal government and 31 states, including Washington and Oregon, which also currently has a moratorium in place. Pennsylvania and Colorado also have death penalty moratoriums.
The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The latest was Delaware, whose Supreme Court last year declared the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional.
Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban, vice chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he doesn’t support ending the death penalty.
“It’s obviously a power the government takes soberly,” he said. “But if we value human life, the only appropriate sanction for the most serious crime of taking that precious individual life is the death penalty and should be retained for the most serious cases.”