OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are considering a measure to abolish the death penalty, an effort that has failed in Washington state in recent years but which supporters hope will gain traction after other states have recently either issued moratoriums or outlawed it completely.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Debbie Regala, of Tacoma, is set to receive a public hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We can keep the public safe with putting people in prison for the rest of their life, as opposed to the costly expense of executing them,” she said.
Regala also argued that the death penalty doesn’t deter someone from committing a murder. She cites her own personal experience with the 1980 murder of her brother-in-law. His killer was never caught. Even if the killer was charged, Regala said she wouldn’t have wanted the assailant to face death.
“It doesn’t do anything to heal your grief,” she said. “It doesn’t bring the victim back.”
Fiscal documents from a similar bill last year showed that, not counting incarceration costs, a death penalty case runs about $1.2 million in state and local costs, compared with $89,000 for a life-without-parole case.
Lawmakers are in the midst of a 60-day legislative session where they are tasked with patching a projected $1 billion dollar shortfall.
“It’s always important and valuable for us to look at public policy and see if it’s actually getting us the results that we want,” Regala said. “When you’re facing an economic crisis, you add an extra lens.”
Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire has not taken a position on the measure, said her spokeswoman, Karina Shagren.
The death penalty is currently used by the federal government and 34 states, including Washington. Sixteen states have abolished it, with Illinois being the most recent last year. And while a death penalty statute is still on the books in Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber last year stopped a pending execution and declared no one would be executed during his time in office.
“There is absolutely no question that there is a growing tide of public sentiment that the death penalty is economically and morally deficient,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. Carlyle sponsored a similar bill in the House but acknowledged he didn’t have the support in the House to get a hearing. “The pressure is growing for Washington to design a more thoughtful approach.”
The last execution in Washington state was in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman. He was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001, after spending nearly 17 years on death row.
Since 1904, 78 men have been put to death in Washington. Eight men are on death row at the state penitentiary.
Bills have been introduced in past years but have not garnered much support. In November, a coalition seeking to change the state’s death penalty laws was formed called “Safe and Just Alternatives.”
“The death penalty is enormously expensive,” said spokeswoman Mishi Faruquee. “Given the budget situation right now in Washington state, you can’t be spending those resources on a broken system.”
Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that he is opposed to any discussion of abolishing the death penalty.
“When somebody takes your life, to get rid of the possibility that they too could be executed for what they have done I think is simply wrong,” he said. “Who’s speaking for the victims?”
Carrell said that the death penalty also “is an essential tool for prosecutors.”
“When people know there’s a possibility that they could be subject to the death penalty, that loosens some tongues,” he said.
Tom McBride, executive secretary for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the group hasn’t taken a position on the bill but welcomed discussion on the issue.
“Why not have that debate and decide?” he said.
Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said his organization has never weighed in on the issue.
“I suspect that our sheriffs and chiefs have mixed feelings on this,” he said.
Carlyle said that while it’s unlikely the measure will pass this year, “there’s a profound structural shift under way.”
“I’m hopeful that in the very near future, we may find we reach a tipping point of our ability to pass this legislation,” he said.
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