Washington lawmakers consider abolishing death penalty entirely
When the state’s Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s death penalty was unconstitutional last year, it left the door open for the Legislature to make fixes — so it could still be used.
But it looks like lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction, as they look to take capital punishment completely off the books.
Gov. Jay Inslee and State Attorney General Bob Ferguson both called on lawmakers after the court’s decision to close the gap left by the ruling, and abolish the death penalty in the state altogether.
Democratic Senator Reuven Carlyle agrees.
“It’s been a long public discourse the last 10 or 15 years in our state and in our country on this issue,” Carlyle said in a Senate committee hearing on his bill to abolish the death penalty Tuesday.
“The result of that civic discourse in the last number of years has been a growing recognition that the data shows that the death penalty is applied in a way that is not consistent and that has serious gaps on every level,” Carlyle added.
He told the Law and Justice Committee he held no morale righteousness in his position supporting an end to capital punishment in Washington, in exchange for sentences of life without parole.
“I just ask with great humility that people look at the evidence and the data,” Carlyle said.
Some of that data comes from a University of Washington study that found black defendants in Washington state are about four times more likely to get the death penalty than white offenders. The state court relied heavily on that study in its decision to rule the death penalty unconstitutional.
Republican Senator Mike Padden pointed out there is a separate bill from Senator Keith Wagoner — named after murdered Monroe Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl — that would have allowed the death penalty in cases where a prisoner already serving life without parole kills again behind bars.
Padden argues that the inmate who killed Biendl essentially got away with murder.
“In effect there is no penalty at all for murders that are committed while you’re incarcerated and I think that’s just wrong. It’s wrong for the victims. It’s wrong for the family members of the victims and it doesn’t provide any accountability for the perpetrator,” Wagoner said.
At Tuesday’s hearing, former state corrections secretary Dick Morgan was asked for his thoughts on whether such inmates should be eligible for a death sentence.
“I can certainly understand the sentiment, particularly when you’re talking about Officer Biendl being murdered by someone who was already doing life,” Morgan said.
“In prison work, any inmate can act out, and you can wind up being murdered by that person. It’s a thought that never leaves those that work in prisons, but the threat of a death penalty doesn’t change that,” Morgan added.
That provides little solace to Biendl’s family.
“He got away with murder — he absolutely got away with murder because he was already in for life without parole so there is no punishment for him. He will get to keep living his life in prison like he was before and maybe murder someone else,” Biendl’s sister Lisa Hamm said following the state court decision.
Morgan noted there were additional punishments, such as solitary confinement for prisoners serving life without parole who kill again.
“That basically results in no physical human contact with another person while that punishment is in place. It’s profound,” Morgan explained.
Morgan, who spoke on behalf of nearly a half dozen former corrections secretaries in favor of abolishing the death penalty, also pointed to the cost of executions on personnel.
“It takes over a hundred personnel to carry out an execution. Several employees have said ‘no thanks’ after having participated in an execution,” Morgan said. “When we talk about the high cost of the death penalty that isn’t calculated in.”
The actual cost — upwards of a million dollars after you get through years of appeals — is also an argument in favor of abolition, especially since many counties can’t afford that.
The bill to abolish the death penalty is set for a key committee vote Thursday. Senator Wagoner’s bill that would allow death sentences for inmates serving life without parole who kill again is not expected to get a hearing.