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Senate votes to end death penalty in Washington

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 15, 2018, 2:21 p.m.

The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Washington would end capital punishment under a bill that narrowly passed the Senate on Wednesday. Convicted murderers would instead serve life in prison without the chance of parole.

Opponents of the bill tried unsuccessfully to add exceptions for the first-degree murder of a police officer, a corrections officer or a person who is facing life in prison and wishes instead to be executed.

In an emotional debate, supporters of the end of capital punishment said the change was not about the people who have committed grave crimes, but about respect for all life.

“I’m here today to ask for mercy for the worst among us,” Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said. “All people deserve to live.”

Miloscia noted the vote was taking place on Ash Wednesday, when he and some other Catholics in the chamber still had crosses traced in ash on their foreheads. At the end of Lent, Christians mark history’s most famous execution, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and Miloscia urged senators to remember his words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who also had an ash cross on his head, urged lawmakers to vote against the bill. He quoted quoted prison inmate Byron Scherf’s comment on being sentenced to death for killing corrections officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex: “If you take a life, you give a life.” (Editor’s note: This story was changed to make clear Padden was quoting Scherf with his comment.)

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Lakewood, said the state should keep capital punishment for the murder of police officers, who provide “a thin blue line” that protects civilization.

“We have to retain the ultimate penalty when the law and respect for the law are being undermined,” he said.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he didn’t believe that people who were sentenced to life without parole would always serve life without parole.

Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, the sponsor of the bill, said she understands the frustration felt by families of corrections officers who have been killed, and is tired of police officers being killed. If someone killed a member of her family, she’d feel different, she acknowledged.

“I’d probably want to pull them apart with my hands. But cooler heads should prevail,” Walsh said.

But the law isn’t applied evenly now, because small counties can’t afford to charge someone with the death penalty while large counties can, she said.

“We spend a lot of money, our tax money, appealing these decisions, and the majority of victims’ families do not get great vindication,” Walsh said.

The bill now goes to the House, where it will have 22 days to pass.


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