Last week, I joined a bipartisan group of legislators and Attorney General Bob Ferguson in Olympia to support a bill that would repeal the death penalty in our state. The repeal would not be retroactive; those who sit on death row today would still be under the sentence they received for the murders they committed. It was striking to me that in our group of Republicans and Democrats, each of the speakers cited a different, personal reason for being there.
Unlike some of them, I don’t support ending the death penalty on moral or religious grounds. I also don’t have constitutional concerns with our state’s death penalty, or how it’s applied. This is an issue where the people, through their elected representatives, can and should decide our state’s policy.
It will surprise some to learn that I’m supporting this bill. I’ve been a longtime supporter of the death penalty. And it was my office, after all, that vigorously and successfully fought the appeals of Cal Coburn Brown, the last person our state executed, in 2010. While I served as Attorney General, we had two full-time lawyers who solely focused on death penalty appeals, who continue to do that work under AG Ferguson today. I continue to appreciate and respect leaders, such as Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-Lakewood), who support maintaining the death penalty in Washington.
Rather than putting it in terms of opposition to the notion of the death penalty, it would be more accurate to say I think it’s time our state moves on from the death penalty. Opponents and supporters alike acknowledge that our state’s system of justice isn’t working with respect to the death penalty, though they disagree on the solution to the present stalemate. I don’t think the stalemate is going to end in the foreseeable future.
Putting someone to state-sanctioned death is a complicated process and has become enormously costly and essentially unending. The endless delays are bad for our criminal justice system and, importantly for this debate, there isn’t much the Legislature can do about that.
There are so many legal avenues for defense counsel to pursue and so many ways to stop an execution. The net result is, they’re just not happening. That was true even before Gov. Inslee announced that he won’t sign off on any executions while he is governor; his moratorium could be extended by his successors, as well.
I should note, Inslee’s approach is not one I support, though we both agree on this bill. He is neither executing duly-convicted criminals nor commuting their sentences, leaving victims’ families in a painful limbo.
Our state’s justice system itself is not well-served by the death penalty as practiced today. It is not good for the system when we have penalties imposed that are not carried out. Yet that’s what is happening today, with so many capital sentences not actually leading to an execution, even 20 years or more after the sentence is handed down. And again, there isn’t much that can be done about that legislatively.
Rep. Terry Nealey (R-Dayton), another Republican supporting this bill, was an elected county prosecutor for many years. He wasn’t able to attend Monday’s press conference, but he wrote in a letter:
“As a former prosecuting attorney for Columbia County, my heart remains with the families of the victims who suffered horrific acts that would justify the death penalty. Their feelings should never be minimalized. That is why it has taken so long for my thoughts to evolve against the death penalty in Washington state. However, the steps, the immense and extended time, and the incredible expense and resources it takes to impose and uphold this most severe form of punishment have made the death penalty nearly impossible to carry out. In recent years, even in the most heinous crimes, jurors have failed to impose the death penalty. In the meantime, families suffer for years with the angst of having to go through trials, court proceedings, appeals and more, not knowing if the death penalty will ever take place.”
Small counties like Nealey’s demonstrate another problem with the death penalty’s application in Washington. Large counties like King can handle the cases, but the resources needed to handle a capital case simply swamp small counties, meaning the penalty is less likely to be pursued there. We should not have a system where the decision to pursue the death penalty depends on how large or wealthy the county is in which the crime is committed.
The debate today is over what we should do moving forward. The death penalty system as it exists is one of uncertainty, tremendous expense, and endless appeals. For the sake of our justice system and limited criminal justice resources, it’s time to move on and rely on life without parole as our most severe state punishment.