Rep. Jenny Graham fights to keep death penalty in state law
March 31, 2019 Updated Mon., April 1, 2019 at 11:56 a.m.
OLYMPIA – As momentum to get rid of the death penalty builds in the Legislature, a freshman Spokane lawmaker is outspoken in her belief that capital punishment works and should remain on the books.
Republican Rep. Jenny Graham ran for office on a platform of public safety and said the state needs to be proactive in protecting people from criminals.
“I am supportive of being absolutely ruthless when it comes to protecting the people in my community from what we determine to be clear and present danger,” she said.
Last week, Graham grilled opponents of the death penalty at a House committee hearing, arguing that replacing it with life without parole was inadequate. The bill already passed the Senate on and is expected to come before the full House in April.
Her call for being “ruthless” is linked to her experience. Graham said she grew up in a physically and sexually abusive home. Her siblings were prone to running away to escape the abuse, and periods of absence were normal until her sister Debra never returned.
For six years, Debra remained missing until Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, named her as one of his victims as part of a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.
Without the threat of capital punishment, there would have been no incentive for Ridgway to give up all of his victims, including Debra, Graham said.
“It’s only because he was afraid of losing his own life,” she said. “This is not mercy for him. It’s mercy for the families. It’s mercy for the community.”
People don’t talk about what works with the death penalty, she said.
But opponents at the hearing said the death penalty effectively has become unavailable for prosecutors in Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014 and said he would not sign a death warrant. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that while the death penalty itself is not unconstitutional, its arbitrary and racially biased application makes it unenforceable.
A study from the University of Washington, cited repeatedly in the court’s ruling, concluded jurors were four times more likely to impose death sentences for black defendants. The report also showed there was uneven distribution among counties where prosecutors sought the death penalty.
The eight inmates on death row at the time of the court ruling had their sentences switched to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Since Washington’s death penalty statute was enacted in 1981, the state has given 33 death sentences and carried out five executions, with the most recent in 2010.
Now the Legislature is considering removing an unenforceable law from the books, which Attorney General Bob Ferguson said would keep the state from repeating history. The Supreme Court has struck down the death penalty four times previously, only for state Legislatures to bring it back.
“Those fixes have never worked,” Ferguson said. “It’s time to take the death penalty off the books in Washington state once and for all.”
The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said the Legislature has public and fiscal obligations to clarify the penalties for various crimes. It’s time to “close this chapter” of the death penalty in Washington, he said.
“I think it’s below us as a civic society,” Carlyle said. “It’s not a deterrent. It doesn’t bring closure. It is unhelpful to the long-term interests of our state.”
During testimony in the House Public Safety Committee, speakers denounced the racially biased aspects of the death penalty and raised concerns over the cost. A study from Seattle University determined capital punishment cases added an additional $1 million onto already expensive sentences.
Graham pushed back, calling discussion of the cost offensive to victims. There is nothing in the budget more important than public safety, she said.
Some victims spoke against the death penalty to the committee and suggested that it would not bring closure.
Again, Graham pushed back. “Victims do not have the right to make that choice for someone else’s family,” she said.
Without the threat of the death penalty, prison guards would face added danger, she said. “If they’re not worried about losing their own life, then these people are in danger.”
Graham was highly critical of the juxtaposition of the bill to abolish capital punishment with another to create a post-conviction review board that could result in some criminals being released early, including those convicted of first-degree murder.
But Ferguson said criminals who could now face the death penalty would not be released under that proposal.
“Abolishing the death penalty necessarily requires maintaining the ability for the people of the state of Washington to send someone to jail for the rest of their life without the possibility of parole period and full-stop,” Ferguson said.
The early release bill appears dead in the Legislature, but House Public Safety Committee Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said the death penalty bill will clear the committee in early April. With the support of Democrats who hold substantial majorities in both chambers, it is expected to be sent to Inslee, who will sign it.
While some Republicans have refused to expend political capital on the fight to retain the death penalty, Graham is vocal and unapologetic.
“I’m not willing to accept that, somehow or another, I’m a cold and uncaring person because I believe in being proactive in protecting people,” she said.
Those who call for victims to turn the other cheek are indifferent and enabling, she said.
“It’s not about hate. It’s not about vengeance,” she said. “People need to start waking up. What are they going to do when this is their child, when this is their family? Nobody is immune.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Senate vote that passed the bill to end capital punishment in Washington.
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