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Bill to eliminate the death penalty moves to the House

Last Friday, the Senate passed a bill, requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, that would eliminate the death penalty. Under the bill, people convicted of aggravated first degree murder would instead be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

The Legislature’s action has been, perhaps, foreshadowed by the other branches of government: The Washington Supreme Court ruled the death penalty invalid last October, “because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” and Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014.

The bill passed off the floor in a 28-19 vote Friday, with two senators excused, and is now in the House.

All senators who spoke in support of the bill during floor debate were Democrats, and nearly all senators who spoke in opposition were Republicans — but the vote wasn’t precisely along party lines.

Three Republicans voted for the measure: Sens. Brad Hawkins, Maureen Walsh, and Judy Warnick. And four Democrats voted against the measure: Sens. Steve Hobbs, Dean Takko, Kevin Van De Wege, and Tim Sheldon.

Debate on the bill grew impassioned, at times, particularly when a few senators described graphic crimes in detail. At one point, a group of children filed out of the gallery.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, the lead sponsor on the bill, opened debate with a speech calling the Legislature to action on the issue and expressing appreciation for the process that ultimately got his bill to the floor.

“I am so deeply honored by the level of civic discourse that this chamber and the other chamber, and throughout our state has embarked on in the last 10 or 15 years in exploring this issue,” Carlyle said. “I think there’s a level of civility, a level of respect, a level of dignity that honors victims and their families, that honors the importance of taking our criminal justice system to that next level of intellectual consistency and rigor.”

Sens. Keith Wagoner, Steve O’Ban, Mike Padden and Doug Ericksen argued against the bill from differing angles.

Wagoner said that the Supreme Court “ruled in error,” given that “of the 78 executions that have been carried out since 1904…only 12 of those could be remotely considered to be minority.”

He also brought up corrections officer Jayme Biendl, who was killed by an inmate who was serving life without the possibility of parole at the Monroe Correctional Complex, and argued that the bill would take away a “bargaining chip” from prosecutors who want to locate the bodies of victims.

“Under the current system, now we’ve created a criminal nirvana where at the top level of crimes, the most heinous crimes, there’s no consequence,” Wagoner said. “That’s a very dangerous situation for our corrections officers and for the inmates that they’re sworn to protect.”

Sen. Jamie Pedersen later addressed some of the points Wagoner made in his remarks, including the potential dangers for crime in prisons. He referenced two points from specific testimony in the Law & Justice Committee from a former secretary at the Department of Corrections:

“Number one: There are lots of tools that are available to the folks who run our prison system to provide additional punishment and to make life dramatically less pleasant for people who commit crimes within prison,” Pedersen said. “It is also the case that the folks in prison who might commit such another crime are unlikely to be, in the opinion of the former secretary, deterred by the presence or absence of the death penalty.”

Along with positing counterpoints and giving reasons why he believes the bill should move, Pedersen took a moment to thank former Sen. Mark Miloscia and Carlyle for their work on the issue.

Ericksen took his argument against the bill in a different direction, calling the issue a “tale of two philosophies,” graphically describing a crime that could warrant the death penalty, and referencing abortion as a point of comparison.

“I come back to this tale of two philosophies, this tale of two people: One being that unborn, innocent child who’s murdered,” Ericksen said. “And one being the heinous criminal who this legislative chamber is saying, ‘You have the right to live.’”

Padden agreed with Ericksen’s comparison and added a concern for what lies ahead if death penalty isn’t an option.

“There’s been talk that there’s other punishment,” Padden said. “But I would point that, right now, there’s major movements coming from the left to abolish solitary confinement and to abolish life without parole… So, where is this all going to end?”

O’Ban’s arguments, in contrast, centered on a need to reform the current law rather than completely eliminate the penalty.

“The solution, in my view, is not to do away the death penalty,” O’Ban said. “But it would be, if this body had the will to actually address that frustration, it could. We could allocate, and there have been efforts to do this, resources for those counties that can’t possibly afford the expense of death row prosecution. That’s a solution.”

Testifiers often mentioned specific people on death row by name and described the crimes that led to their death sentences. Sen. Manka Dhingra, in her remarks, acknowledged that there were, indeed, several people that many legislators would agree deserve the death penalty, but that it doesn’t mean the bill shouldn’t pass.

“The bottom line is, there are many people who want a death penalty in the abstract, Dhingra said. “But the death penalty, as applied in this state, does not make sense. It costs a lot of money. It does not bring any sense of justice. These are individuals who are going to die in prison. They’re all going to die in prison. The question is: At what time do they die and how do they die? But they’re all dying in prison. And this is why it’s actually very important for us to really take a stand and say that we, as a state, should not be in the business of murder.”

Sen. Steve Conway closed out the debate with a simple message: “Some issues rest with the people to decide.”

The debate will continue in the House — no hearing date is set yet, but it’s been referred to the House Public Safety Committee. Gov. Inslee indicated his support in a press conference yesterday, during which he commented on the bill’s progress.

“The Senate has passed the bill eliminating the death penalty, Inslee said. “[It] follows my moratorium, and we hope that the House will follow suit.”