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Foes take another run at ending Washington’s death penalty

Jessie Trapp, whose mother was murdered in 1997, told a Senate committee Monday that executing her mother's killer would help bring closure to her family. (Rachel Sun / The Spokesman-Review)
Jessie Trapp, whose mother was murdered in 1997, told a Senate committee Monday that executing her mother's killer would help bring closure to her family. (Rachel Sun / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A change in control of the Senate means this could be the year that Washington could abolish the death penalty, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a longtime critic of capital punishment, said after talking to the committee that may hold the key.

Proposed legislation to end the death penalty is emotional for victims’ families who are for or against, the hearing before the Senate Law and Justice Committee showed Monday. That isn’t different from previous years, when similar versions have been proposed in the House but were blocked in the Senate.

This year, however, the Senate committee is led by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, rather than Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican.

“We appreciate (Pedersen’s) willingness to have the conversation, and potentially take a vote on it,’ Ferguson said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review after his testimony.

Although some people testifying at the hearing suggested the issue be up to the voters, Ferguson disagreed.

“We have a Legislature for a reason,” Ferguson said. “These are the laws, that’s their job. I know it’s a tough issue, I know it’s not an easy vote, but that’s why the taxpayers send them here every session.”

The bill would require people convicted of aggravated first-degree murder – the only charge that can result in the death sentence in Washington – to be sentenced instead to life in prison without parole.

The sponsor, Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said the death penalty does not help victims, and has the potential of killing innocent people who are wrongly convicted.

“I’m concerned about erroneously putting people to death,” she said.

Walsh also listed concerns over the costs of legal fees for the state.

According to a 2015 study by Seattle University, death penalty cases take up roughly $1 million more in fees for taxpayers than cases where the death penalty is not sought.

Lacey resident Jessie Trapp, whose mother Jane Hungerford-Trapp was killed in 1996, said she thinks the death penalty is appropriate.

“I have an 8-year-old daughter that cries all the time wondering why she didn’t get to meet my mother,” she said.

The governor’s 2014 moratorium on capital punishment was devastating to her and her family, which “wanted the relief knowing he was going to executed,” she said.

But Teresa Mathis, whose brother Charlie was murdered in 1983 in Pierce County, said the death sentence did not help her family find closure.

“We were left with a lot of unanswered questions,” she said.

Her family was glad when the court process was over so they could stop thinking about it, Mathis said.

“A family friend asked my mother whether we wished there would be a death penalty in this case,” she said. “My mother answered, ‘No, there’s been enough killing. I don’t want any more of it.’ ”

Dan Satterberg, King County prosecuting attorney, said the death penalty siphons money that could go to other programs, makes families suffer longer and is not necessary for public safety. There is already life without possibility of parole for offenders, he said.

“I have come to the conclusion after 27 years that our criminal justice system would be stronger without the death penalty,” he said. “That fight is not worth it. It’s not worth it to the taxpayers, it’s not worth it to the families.”

Nemesio Domingo said he felt a sense of closure from the sentence of life without parole for the murderers of his brother, Ignacio Domingo, and friend, Gene Viernes. The two were labor activists working in Seattle when they were murdered in 1981.

“The oldest perpetrator died in prison of natural causes,” he said. “The other three men are my age. I am turning 71 years old this year. This means that those men have spent two-thirds of their lives in prison, and they will take their last breaths in prison.”

The bill is scheduled for a vote at 10 a.m. Thursday.

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