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Legislature asked to abolish the death penalty in Washington

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 16, 2017

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, during a news conference at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., to announce that he and Attorney General Bob Ferguson have proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Washington state. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, during a news conference at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., to announce that he and Attorney General Bob Ferguson have proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Washington state. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – The death penalty would be abolished in Washington if a bipartisan effort can pass the Legislature.

Supporters of the effort say the death penalty is both unjust and expensive, but they concede abolishing it could be a tough and emotional fight. History suggests they are right.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson were joined by Rob McKenna – Ferguson’s predecessor and Inslee’s 2012 gubernatorial opponent – along with Democrats and Republicans from both legislative chambers Monday in announcing bills to abolish capital punishment in Washington.

If it becomes law, a person convicted of aggravated murder – the only crime for which the death penalty is possible – would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ferguson called the death penalty a deeply personal issue that transcends politics. “It’s time for the Legislature to take a vote,” he said.

McKenna said the death penalty is applied so unevenly in Washington that receiving it as a sentence depends on where the crime is convicted. Small counties often can’t afford the long and expensive appeal process and opt not to seek it.

“This inequality can no longer stand,” said Inslee, who has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty as long as he is governor.

That moratorium will remain in place even if the Legislature brings the bills to the floor and votes them down, Inslee said.

“While I’m governor, there will not be a state-sanctioned execution,” he said. “We do not execute people unequally, unfairly.”

There are currently eight people on death row in Washington. As currently written, the bills would not cancel those executions although they could be amended to be retroactive, Ferguson said.

“That’s a conversation that needs to take place,” he said.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee that would hear the bill, said through a spokesman he would take the same stance as on a similar proposal last year. He’ll consider holding a hearing if the bill first passes the House.

Last year, a bill received a hearing in a House committee but did not get a vote in that committee and didn’t come up for debate in the full House, so it didn’t come up for a hearing in the Senate.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, the committee’s vice chairman, said he’d welcome a hearing on the bill to air both sides of the issue. “The citizens of this state and other states support the death penalty,” he said.

Washington voters overwhelmingly approved the death penalty by initiative in 1975 after the U.S. Supreme Court suspended capital punishment around the country until each state could review its laws. Efforts since that time to repeal it by initiative or in the Legislature have fallen flat.

If all the Senate’s 24 Democrats support this year’s measure, the bill could have enough support among Republicans to force it to the floor by a parliamentary procedure. Republican Sens. Mark Miloscia, of Federal Way, and Maureen Walsh, of Walla Walla, are both backing the bill and say they expect some others will, too.

“It’s the fiscal conservative in me that says we’re spending a lot of money on what’s basically a broken system,” Walsh said.

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