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Gov. Inslee calls for moratorium on the death penalty

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 11, 2014, 1:01 p.m.

OLYMPIA — Washington will not execute anyone on death row while Jay Inslee is governor.

Inslee announced a moratorium today on capital punishment, saying he will issue a reprieve if any execution warrant comes to his desk. He’s not issuing a blanket commutation of sentences, and anyone who gets a reprieve from him could still be executed by a successor.

He expects the moratorium to spark a conversation about the death penalty in Washington.

“I am not convinced equal justice is being served,” Inslee said at a press conference to announce that he has changed his mind on capital punishment, a penalty he previously supported for some cases. “During my term, we will not be executing people.”

The current system has too many doubts and too many flaws, he said. The death penalty is neither swift nor certain, with those sentenced remaining on death row for years and families of victims forced to wait through a long series of appeals.

The state has a “perfectly safe alternative” to execution, he said: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Inslee said he arrived at this decision after months of study, which included a trip to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. There, he talked to administrators and guards, and to some family members of victims in capital punishment and other homicide cases.

“I talked to family members who are going to be disappointed” by the decision, he said.

The state currently has nine inmates on death row, including Dwayne Woods, who was convicted in Spokane County. Woods was sentenced in 1997 for two counts of first-degree murder committed in Spokane County in 1996.

Also awaiting execution is Robert Lee Yates Jr. of Spokane, a serial killer who was sentenced to life in prison in a plea bargain for murders in Spokane but was later tried in Pierce County and sent to death row for two murders there.

Not on death row, however, is the state’s most prolific serial murderer, Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, who received life in prison in a plea bargain that involved him helping authorities find the remains of his many victims.

Washington has executed 78 people, all men, since 1904, but there were several periods where capital punishment was abolished, either by the Legislature or the courts, and a 30-year-hiatus starting in 1963, caused in part by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment as it was then being applied in the states was arbitrary and unconstitutional. That forced states to rewrite their laws.

Washington voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative calling for the death penalty to be re-instituted in 1975, and the Legislature passed a law that would pass judicial muster in 1981.

The first person to be executed under the current law was Wesley Allen Dodd in 1993, and four others have been executed since that time.

Anyone facing prosecution in a capital case now will not be facing execution during Inslee’s current term, and likely not even a second term if he should run and win re-election. It’s uncertain when any inmate currently on death row will exhaust all appeals and be at the point where Inslee would be faced with signing the warrant of execution. If that happens he will issue a reprieve that will last as long as he is governor.

The Legislature typically has bills seeking to abolish the death penalty and two have been introduced in this session — one which received a hearing last year in a House committee but had no other action and one introduced in the Senate which had no hearing. Both are considered dead because they missed a deadline last week to move out of their respective committees.

Inslee said he wasn’t requesting legislation abolishing the death penalty, but if a bill came to his desk “consistent with this position”, he would sign it.

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