Adam Cornell testifies before a legislative committee in Olympia in 2018, before he was elected Snohomish County prosecutor. (Washington Legislature)

Adam Cornell testifies before a legislative committee in Olympia in 2018, before he was elected Snohomish County prosecutor. (Washington Legislature)

Snohomish County prosecutor calls for end of death penalty

Adam Cornell didn’t oppose it until the Supreme Court struck it down. He says that changed the landscape.

OLYMPIA — Throughout nearly 17 years as a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, Adam Cornell didn’t oppose the death penalty.

His view changed in October 2018 when the state Supreme Court struck down Washington’s capital punishment law because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.

On Monday, Cornell, now the county’s elected prosecutor, implored lawmakers to take the next step and erase it from the books.

“No county prosecutor in this state can credibly tell a grieving family that the death penalty is a possibility,” he told members of the House Public Safety Committee. “To continue to support this wholly unenforceable law, to keep it on the books is to perpetuate the illusion of its reality and its utility to the families of victims now and in the future.

“The death penalty,” he continued, “is now in this state a castle in the sky, an empty wish for those who might think it has any utility left.”

Cornell was one of nearly two dozen people who testified on Senate Bill 5339, which would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and instead mandate a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

The bill passed the Senate last month and is expected to be approved by the House committee this week. After that its fate is unclear. Last session the bill cleared the Senate and the same House committee only to have leaders of the majority Democrats prevent it from reaching the floor for a vote. Gov. Jay Inslee has said he will sign it if it makes it to his desk.

Executions are rare in Washington, with the last coming in 2010. Inslee in 2014 imposed a moratorium on the death penalty’s use.

The 2018 ruling by the state Supreme Court effectively ended use of capital punishment as it converted the sentences for the state’s eight death row inmates to life imprisonment.

Justices did leave open the possibility for lawmakers to revise the law in a way that’s constitutional. Inslee said at the time they shouldn’t try. He said it “would be a waste of time” because he would veto any legislation aimed at retaining capital punishment.

On Monday, supporters of the bill said there is no way to fix the bill in a manner that won’t be deemed unconstitutional at some point in the future.

“It is inherently not workable,” said Glen Anderson of the Committee for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in Olympia.

Opponents, including family members of murder victims, argued otherwise. Several cited the case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, who provided authorities with information on dozens of victims once prosecutors removed the threat of a death sentence.

He didn’t mind murdering young women, but he didn’t want to die, said Lew Cox, of Tacoma, executive director of Violent Crime Victim Services.

“I would like to have this death penalty stay in place,” he said.

That 2018 decision meant Byron Scherf, who murdered Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl in 2011, will now spend the rest of his life behind bars.

“What shall we do for Jayme Biendl under this bill? We don’t know,” said James McMahan, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which opposes the legislation.

In Snohomish County, existence of the death penalty has affected one recent outcome.

Former county prosecutor Mark Roe charged the 19-year-old man who killed three people at a Mukilteo house party in 2016 with three counts of aggravated murder — each of which carried a death sentence. Within five months, the man pleaded guilty and is now locked up for life.

Cornell was the deputy prosecutor in the case. In an interview before Monday’s hearing, he declined to comment on any aspect of the case.

He did elaborate on his changed viewpoint. When he ran for office in 2018, he said he told those who asked that he wasn’t opposed to seeking the death penalty in very rare circumstances.

Then came the Supreme Court ruling, which he said “has changed the landscape.”

As he would later tell lawmakers, he said it is “unfair to the families” of victims of horrific crimes to say it’s a possibility because it would give them false hopes.

“It’s clear that there is zero political will to modify the statute so it is constitutional,” he said. “It is a legal impossibility.”

A committee vote on the Senate bill is scheduled for 8 a.m. Thursday.

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

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