GOP senator wants death penalty revived for prison killings

Keith Wagoner says capital punishment should be on the table for an inmate who kills.

Jayme Biendl, 34, was a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe. (Contributed photo)

Jayme Biendl, 34, was a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe. (Contributed photo)

OLYMPIA — A Republican state senator wants the death penalty back on the table for inmates accused of killing someone while locked up.

Sen. Keith Wagoner of Sedro-Woolley has introduced a bill to restore capital punishment as an option for prosecutors in cases where a prison inmate is charged with aggravated first-degree murder.

“I know that this is a very divisive issue that many people feel very strongly about, but I believe there must be consequences for incarcerated individuals who commit murder,” Wagoner said.

The state Supreme Court tossed out the death penalty in October and converted all death sentences to life imprisonment. That means Byron Scherf, who murdered Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl on Jan. 29, 2011, will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Seven others were on death row at the time.

“This issue hits close to home,” said Wagoner, who represents the 39th District where the prison is located. “I believe justice wasn’t served in this case.”

But Tuesday, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee said the bill will not receive a hearing.

“I don’t have any interest in trying to re-institute the death penalty for a fourth time,” said Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle. “We are going to hear a bill to abolish the death penalty.”

When told of the senator’s comments, Wagoner said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising. There should be room for discussion for this very precise application.

“Our corrections officers are no longer protected and neither are the other offenders,” he continued. “There are no consequences for continuing to hurt people. There (are) supposed to be consequences for heinous behavior.”

Wagoner said he spoke with Biendl’s family about the bill and they told him they supported his approach.

In October, the family expressed sadness and anger at the court’s decision.

“Jayme’s murderer was serving life without parole when he strangled her,” the family said in a statement at the time. “This literally means that he got away with murder of an innocent person and that action has no consequence for him.”

Under Senate Bill 5364, a “death penalty review panel” would be created to examine cases when a person is charged with aggravated first-degree murder and the murder occurred while they were incarcerated. Members would review information from the prosecuting attorney and defense counsel, and recommend whether capital punishment should be sought.

The panel would be made up of four prosecuting attorneys, the attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Corrections. The prosecuting attorney from the county in which the murder occurred would serve as an ad hoc member.

Wagoner’s bill would require panel members to consider if there are “sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency.” And they would have to consider whether imposing the death penalty “measurably contributes” to deterring other inmates from committing murders, and whether it “meets the goal of fairness and consistency in the criminal justice system.”

In its ruling in 2018, the state’s high court concluded the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was “unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant.”

Wagoner said that by creating a special panel to look at many factors before recommending the death penalty, he hoped the bill would not violate the state’s constitution.

Justices did leave open the possibility of lawmakers revising the statute to make it legal. But Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has said that would be a waste of time, as he would veto any such bill that reached his desk.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos

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