With a bipartisan faction behind him, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson used Martin Luther King Jr. Day to announce his plan to introduce legislation that would end the death penalty in Washington.
There have been 78 death sentences carried out in Washington since 1904, the last in 2010.
Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in February 2014. He used it in December to grant a reprieve to Clark Elmore, who raped and killed a 14-year-old girl. He was set to be executed on Thursday, Jan. 19.
Ferguson’s legislation would end the death penalty in Washington, replacing the sentence with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“One thing that I want to emphasize is, it’s time for the Legislature to take a vote,” Ferguson said during a Monday news conference.
Six state legislatures have abolished the death penalty in the past decade, the attorney general said, but the Washington Legislature hasn’t taken a vote — even at the committee level — in as long as he or 36th District Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, could remember.
Ferguson cited the 60-year-old words of Martin Luther King Jr. in response to an Ebony Magazine reporter’s question on capital punishment.
“He said, ‘Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.’”
Bipartisan supporters of Ferguson’s legislation took turns making arguments for it, with former state attorney general Rob McKenna addressing the financial impact the death penalty has had in Washington.
“This is an issue I’ve been around a long long time. I grew up in a law-enforcement household. My father was a criminal investigator,” McKenna said. “As a member of the Metropolitan King County Prosecutors for years, I watched prosecutor Norm Maleng struggle with this issue in very difficult cases.”
He’s also seen the moralistic and financial strains the death penalty has created across other Washington counties and in the attorney general’s office during his administration, he said.
“These cases cost millions and millions and millions of dollars,” McKenna said, adding there are two assistant attorney generals whose role is implementing the death penalty. “This is because the appeals are literally endless.”
Inmates have spent upward of 20 years sitting on death row, awaiting the results of their appeals. McKenna said there are currently eight people on death row in Washington.
“This is a system in which justice is delayed,” he said, “and delayed to the point where the system is broken, it isn’t working anymore.”
When the governor imposed a moratorium on the death penalty nearly three years ago, he did not propose legislation for the Legislature to consider. Inslee said Monday he knew it would be a limited tool, and more would need to be done. It was “absolutely clear,” he said, that the death penalty was unequally applied in Washington, frequently overturned and always an expensive endeavor.
“I could not, in good conscience, allow executions to go on under my watch as governor of Washington,” Inslee said.
30th District Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, called on his faith as one reason for his pushing for the abolishment of the death penalty since the late ‘90s.
“I’m Catholic. Catholic respects life. This bill, which changes the death penalty, is what I call trying to do what Pope Francis talks about,” Miloscia said. “How do we show mercy to our enemies, to those people who may have commit an evil? How can we show mercy, at the same time, work for public safety? This bill does both.”
16th District Sen. Maureen Walsh is a Republican from Walla Walla, where the state’s second-largest prison operates.
When she started pushing for the end of the death penalty several years ago, Walsh said
she heard from Washington State Penitentiary corrections officers, adding she had joked about it being for their job security.
“To be honest with you, it’s the fiscal conservative in me that says we’re spending a lot of money in an appeals process that’s, again, somewhat of a broken system,” she said.
Walsh said she doesn’t want to diminish the struggles faced by families who have lost a loved one to a brutal crime.
“Many of those families have expressed that they’ve received no vindication from the death of that individual that has committed this crime,” she said, adding it’s a painful process that, because of the lengthy appeals process, can be brought up repeatedly.
The bill is expected to go to the Senate Law and Justice Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.
Later during the press conference, Ferguson appealed to lawmakers not in the room, saying he understands the political difficulty in casting such a vote.
“One can take a stand against the death penalty and survive that quite successfully,” he said. “I know this from experience.”
A lifelong opponent of the death penalty, Ferguson said he won his election bid, and then his reelection campaign.
“They will respect you, if you’re with them or against them,” Ferguson said of Washington voters, “as long as you take a vote.”