It’s time to move on from the death penalty in Washington

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.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.
  • Radio Randy

    You and I will never understand the mind of a murderer…It’s impossible. How, then, does allowing them to live the rest of their natural lives, as hermits, punish them? They were hermits to begin with. You, really don’t know what hurts these people, do you? Do the families of the victims agree with your opinion on the subject. If not, how can you look them in the eye and say justice is being served?
    I realize that executions are expensive, but we can thank lawyers for that. If our governments wanted to, they could change the laws to accommodate Capitol punishment…You can’t tell me this is impossible. However, you’ll take the easy way out and hope that life sentences will exist, forever. Good luck with that.
    By the way, in case you haven’t heard the news…Obama just commuted the sentence of a traitor to the United States. A man who should have been executed received a 35 year sentence. Then, with the stroke of a pen, will be released after serving a mere 6 years. Yep, sounds like justice to me, alright. After all…The intent was there.


      Well said. Changing the appeals process is something that the legislature full of lawyers could do easily, if they choose to serve the people rather than the legal business.

  • Swed.

    Make the people pushing for life in Prison pay for it out of their pockets.

    Some people are too toxic to keep around, Charlie Manson comes to mind as does John Wayne Gacy

  • Hardpan

    The citizens are promised “and justice for all.” There is no justice when a person maliciously and deliberately takes the life of another human being and is not promptly executed. Such a person, whether he understands it or not, has forfeited all right to his own life by the taking of the life of another. It is the duty of a legally constituted government to carry out the execution of such person and to do it promptly. Those whom we pay to execute justice on our behalf, must be made to understand that when judgment is slow in being carried out, then others will be emboldened to do evil. Another thing, who was the ignoramus who put it in the hands of the people on a jury to decide a murderer’s penalty. This should be written into the law and not depended upon people with emotions. I hope you will do the right thing and not the easy thing. To deny the death penalty is to deny justice. What you need to do is clear the path of all those obstacles you named and legitimized by so doing. Get them out of the way and hire a couple of carpenters to start building a hanging scaffold and put it to work. A lover of justice and truth.