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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Senate votes again to strike death penalty statute

OLYMPIA – Although Washington’s death penalty has been placed on hold by the governor and ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, the Senate voted Friday to wipe it completely from state law.

Changing the law to make life in prison without parole the only option for someone convicted of aggravated murder would give finality and certainty to victims’ families, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said. With the death penalty, they face the prospect of years of appeals and hearings during which the sentence can be overturned.

Capital cases are time-consuming and expensive to prosecute, which means the law isn’t applied equally across the state, he said.

That certainty doesn’t make up for the loss those families suffer when a loved one is murdered, said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy.

“To have someone live their life in prison should not be equated to a person who is never going to be seen by their family again,” she said.

Although convicted murderers are rarely sentenced to death, having that option on the table is something prosecutors can use as part of a plea bargain to get information on unsolved cases from serial killers such as Robert Yates, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said.

The death penalty, even though it isn’t the final sentence, in those situations can bring closure to the families that would otherwise not know the fate of their loved ones, he said.

The state’s death penalty has been struck down three times, most recently in October 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled it is not applied equally across the state. At the time, the sentences of the eight men on death row were changed to life without parole and there have not been any further capital sentences.

Being sentenced to death can depend on where the crime took place, whether the prosecuting county has the budget to pursue it or the race of the defendant. It also “fails to serve any legitimate penological goal,” then-Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote.

Four years earlier, Gov. Jay Inslee had announced a moratorium on signing orders for executions while he is in office.

Despite that moratorium and the Supreme Court’s ruling, the law remains on the books. Removing it entirely would provide clarity, said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, the bill’s sponsor.

“We have a great deal of confusion,” said Carlyle, who has sponsored or co-sponsored bills to eliminate the death penalty for 10 years.

In many of those years, such a bill has passed the Senate, only to fail to get a final vote in the House. The bill that passed Friday also passed the Senate on a nearly identical vote last year, but was sent back from the House at the end of the 2019 session

The death penalty is rarely applied, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, said: “We’re talking about the most gruesome murders, the most unspeakable crimes that I don’t think we could even detail on this floor without turning stomachs.”

He did, however, describe one case that involved the rape of a 65-year-old woman who was then smothered with a towel soaked in toxic solvent, then had her jewelry, money and food stolen. He was about to describe another murder when Sen. Karen Keiser, who was presiding over the Senate, interrupted to tell him there were children in the gallery.

“Precisely,” O’Ban said, adding the facts – which he didn’t detail –are difficult but the voices of the victims need to be heard.