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Death penalty ban passes out of Senate committee

A bill to eliminate the death penalty in Washington passed out of the Senate Law and Justice committee this morning by a 4-3 vote along party lines. Senate Bill 6052 would get rid of the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Language in the bill primarily focuses on reducing the expenses associated with death penalty litigation. In the bill’s public hearing on Monday, both Attorney General Bob Ferguson and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg testified in support of the bill and pointed to the exorbitant costs of the death penalty as a key reason to eliminate it.

Studies show that death penalty cases cost about $1.5 million more than cases where a prosecutor does not seek the death penalty. Death penalty cases often go through extensive appeals processes and can require teams of lawyers to litigate cases for more than twenty years.

Satterberg also testified that death penalty cases often pull money and resources away from other areas of the criminal justice system and are unevenly pursued in the few counties that can afford the high price tag.

“By any measure, this doesn’t work. It siphons resources from the criminal justice system that badly needs it in other places. And our criminal justice system would be stronger without the death penalty,” said Satterberg.

Satterberg recently wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times that took a deep dive into this issue.

Arguing in opposition were other prosecuting attorneys and concerned citizens. They brought forth arguments that the death penalty can provide closure to victims, that capital punishment is a deterrent for crime, and that it can be used as leverage in plea deals.

During the executive session this morning, Senator Jaime Pedersen, Chair of the Law and Justice committee, was the most vocal in his support of the bill, while Senators Mike Padden and Jan Angel spoke in opposition.

Senator Mike Padden, who ultimately voted against the bill, brought forth several amendments that would have made major changes to the legislation. He proposed an amendment that would continue to allow the death penalty in cases of aggravated first degree murder if the victim was a law enforcement officer or corrections officer. Both of these amendments failed.

Sen. Padden also proposed an amendment that would put this decision to a vote of the people during the next general election. In 1975, the people of Washington voted in favor of the death penalty in cases of aggravated murder in the first degree. Padden said that an issue as sensitive and emotional as this should go to the citizens of Washington.

“This is a very serious situation, there’s powerful arguments on both sides, and it’s a highly charged issue…I think if we’re going to do this, the people ought to have a say in it, especially since they adopted it,” said Padden.

Senator Angel agreed, saying that a vote on this issue is critical.

This is the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in Washington that a bill banning capital punishment has passed out of committee.