Do we need the death penalty? Testimony split in Olympia

The voter-approved law has been on the books since 1981. The governor has been issuing reprieves.

Jayme Biendl, 34, was a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe.

Jayme Biendl, 34, was a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers on Monday renewed their effort to eliminate the death penalty, which voters overwhelmingly embraced and their legislating predecessors put on the books nearly 40 years ago.

More than a dozen people testified before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Senate Bill 6052, which would replace a death sentence with life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

And they were nearly equally divided on the value of retaining the capital punishment law in place since 1981.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and family members of murder victims urged lawmakers to get rid of it on grounds it is too costly, disproportionately applied and morally wrong.

“Our criminal justice system would be stronger without the death penalty,” Satterberg said, adding life behind bars without parole “is a death sentence. They get sent to prison to die.”

But Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson and family members of murder victims said the death penalty can bring closure for families and should not be taken off the books without the approval of voters.

In 1976, 69 percent of Washington voters endorsed a death penalty initiative.

Roe said there are people who do such horrible things they deserve to die. But, he said, it’s not a question prosecutors and lawmakers should be deciding.

He spoke of his own experience as a deputy prosecutor who urged jurors to support death sentences for some defendants.

“I think those jurors — our citizens — should be the ones to make the decision,” he said. “They would decide based on what’s in their heart.”

The state can only impose a death sentence against a person convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree, and only after a special sentencing proceeding is conducted to determine if capital punishment is warranted.

Of the 33 people sentenced to death since 1981, five have been executed, according to a staff report presented Monday.

A total of eight 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 for the 2011 strangling of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl. Scherf already was serving a life sentence when he attacked Biendl.

At Monday’s hearing, Roe read from a letter from Biendl’s father in which he said the death penalty is a “viable alternative” to deal with “these monsters.” Lisa and Deborah Hamm, Biendl’s sisters, attended Monday’s hearing but did not testify.

Gov. Jay Inslee supports getting rid of the death penalty and in 2014 put a moratorium on executions.

“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 at the time. “The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”

As long as the death penalty is still the law, the governor is using his executive power to issue reprieves for those on death row who get an execution date.

He did that in December 2016, sparing the life of Clark Richard Elmore, who was convicted in 1995 of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter. The crime occurred in Bellingham. Elmore will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

The measure discussed Monday is sponsored by Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, and co-sponsored by 16 other senators. It is identical to legislation carried last year by another Republican, Sen. Mark Miloscia, of Federal Way.

Miloscia’s bill did not receive a hearing as Republicans controlled the Senate, and held a majority on the Law and Justice Committee.

Walsh might have a little more success this year. Democrats are now in the majority and are expected to advance the bill out of the committee Thursday.

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

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