OLYMPIA – Whether Washington should execute some people for crimes like aggravated first-degree murder is a good debate to have.
Whether the governor or the Legislature has the constitutional authority to do certain things is a good debate to have.
Mix capital punishment with separation of powers and you get a not-so-good debate, but an excellent vehicle for diatribe.
So it was last week when the Senate Law and Justice Committee gathered in high dudgeon to discuss a bill designed to legislatively spank Gov. Jay Inslee. He’d announced two weeks earlier his plans to issue reprieves in any capital case that got through all appeals and presented him with an order of execution to sign. Not a pardon. Not a commutation of sentence. Just a no-decision as long as Inslee’s in office.
The governor called it hitting the “pause” button so the state can discuss whether capital punishment is effective, cost-efficient and applied fairly.
The fact that Inslee might not face such a decision for months or even years could cause some to wonder why now rather than when the hangman is testing rope. (That’s not strictly a metaphor. Washington does have hanging as an option for executions.)
Plenty of people were understandably outraged by Inslee’s decision, from the relatives of the victims of those on death row to corrections officers who fear the threat of execution may be the only thing that keeps some lifers from killing guards.
Also outraged was Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, who introduced a bill calling for the Legislature to “reaffirm” the powers of the Clemency and Pardons board and force Inslee to reprieve inmates one by one. And only after good cause, as defined in the bill as “the governor has undergone an individualized consideration of the facts of a specific conviction after he or she has received a recommendation from the Clemency and Pardons Board.”
“Reaffirm” is legislative speak for “We’re going to say this again so people who aren’t so bright can understand its importance.” Giving power to the board is the Legislature’s key role in the execution process.
The bill had a hearing last week, and O’Ban recruited a cross-section of victims, including Spokanites Ed Oster, whose daughter Sunny was murdered by serial killer Robert Yates, and Sherry and Roger Shaver, whose daughter Telisha was murdered by Dewayne Woods. They gave heartfelt and compelling testimony why they disagreed with Inslee’s decision.
But for them, like most other family members of victims, a key reason for their presence seemed to be for O’Ban to ask if Inslee had consulted them before announcing his decision. The governor had not, they all said.
“The families should have been allowed to have input,” said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who apologized to the families for “the liberalism that is here in the state.”
The governor did contact some victims’ families for inmates closest to execution, said Sandy Mullins, his senior policy adviser. He plans to contact others if the person who killed their relative were to get to the end of the appeals process and a death warrant was pending.
What’s the good of that, asked Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, if he’s already made the decision?
Did he contact any lawmakers? O’Ban asked Mullins. Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, quickly interjected that he’d called her. There were others, Mullins said.
“For the record, I was not contacted as chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee,” Padden said.
“Nor I as vice chairman (of Law and Justice) and chairman of Human Services and Corrections,” O’Ban said.
The bill passed 4-3, but after the deadline for legislation that deals with policy, not budgets. Too late, said the folks who decide what goes to the Senate floor. They sent it back, essentially signing its death warrant for the year.
Kids may say the darnedest things, as Art Linkletter once insisted. But folks at legislative hearings can be a close second. Last week’s best description came from an opponent of a plan to raise taxes on vaporized nicotine, or e-cigarettes. Vaping, as it is sometimes called, is a much better choice than smoking cigarettes, Anthony McMullen told the House Finance Committee.
“It’s like going from licking dirt to eating cake,” he said.