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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inslee signs bill officially repealing death penalty in Washington

Rep. Jenny Graham debates a bill on the House floor on Wednesday.  (By Jim Camden / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – The death penalty, which was put on hold by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014 and invalidated by the state’s highest court four years later, was struck from Washington statutes Thursday.

Inslee signed an innocuous-sounding bill to remove “defects and omissions in the laws” that included erasing capital punishment as an option for a person convicted of aggravated first-degree murder. It had been applied unequally and in a “racially insensitive manner,” he said.

“We are ending the death penalty in the state of Washington, period,” he said before signing the bill with dozens of legislators and Attorney General Bob Ferguson looking on.

Capital punishment has a long and complicated history in Washington. It was abolished in 1913 but reinstated in 1919, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1972, and the U.S. Supreme Court put the death penalty on hold nationally in 1974. But Washington voters passed an initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1975 by a margin of more than 2-to-1. The state Supreme Court struck it down in 1979. The Legislature tried to address that decision with a law reinstating it in 1981 and amended it several times.

It was rarely used – just five times between its reinstatement by the 1975 initiative and 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown was executed for the rape, torture and murder of Holly Washa, a Seattle woman – before Inslee announced in 2014 he would issue a reprieve for any death penalty warrant he received while in office.

Five people already sentenced remained on death row with pending appeals. But some of the state’s most notorious murderers, including Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer who was convicted of 49 murders and confessed to dozens more, received multiple life sentences, not the death penalty.

In 2018, the state Supreme Court struck down the death sentence of Allen Eugene Gregory, who had been convicted of the 1996 rape, robbery and murder of Geneine Harshfield in her Tacoma home.

In that ruling, the court said the way the death penalty is applied in Washington is so flawed it “constitutionally cannot stand.”

Inslee and Ferguson pushed for the Legislature to strike the capital punishment section for years, but majority Democrats had been unable to push a bill through both chambers until this year. As usual, the debate was spirited and generally along partisan lines.

“If we do not have the justice system to manage this, I’m afraid we’re going to see people take the law into their own hands,” Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, said when the House debated the bill earlier this month.

Even when it isn’t used, the threat of the death penalty can be a tool to solve crimes, Graham said. Her sister Debra Lorreine was one of Ridgway’s victims, and the threat of the death penalty on her murder prompted Ridgway to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of other victims and give their families some closure, she said.

“The death penalty made a difference,” Graham said.

Rather than removing the death penalty from statutes, Graham and other Republicans argued the Legislature should change the bill to call for a referendum that would put capital punishment before voters in November.

“Because this was a people’s initiative, it should be the people that decide whether it gets repealed,” she said.

But Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, countered that wouldn’t automatically make a new death penalty law constitutional. Voters could re-enact a law that would still be unconstitutional, he said.