Washington likely won’t abolish the death penalty this year
The bill to officially end the death penalty in Washington state failed to get a vote ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.
The death penalty is unusable in Washington right now. The state Supreme Court ruled it was being used arbitrarily and with racial bias last year. It ordered all death sentences be converted to life without parole.
That left three possibilities for the Legislature: fix the law, abolish it, or leave the law on the books as is — entirely unenforceable after the court’s decision.
State Attorney General Bob favored abolition of the death penalty. He requested a bill to abolish capital punishment. In a House committee last month, Ferguson explained why.
Leaving an unenforceable law on the books increases the risk that we will repeat history. Four times in our state’s history the courts have struck down Washington’s death penalty in a similar way as just happened – as applied. The previous three times, the legislature implemented fixes to the death penalty that ultimately failed to address its arbitrary and racially biased application. I do not think that going through that again would be something the state should do.
There’s been opposition to abolishing Washington’s death penalty from Republicans. Some want to keep it on the books, and others have tried to include amendments that would allow it to be used in certain cases, like when a person who is already serving life without parole kills again while behind bars.
That was the case in 2012, when convicted murderer Byron Scherf — who was already serving life without parole — killed Monroe Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl in the prison chapel.
Biendl’s family has adamantly opposed abolishing the death penalty for years, saying it effectively means Scherf got away with murder. Scherf, along with seven other death row inmates, were commuted to life without parole, following last year’s Supreme Court decision.
Other critics of abolishing the death penalty argue it’s an important tool for prosecutors who need it as leverage, and some say it’s an issue for voters, not lawmakers.
Republican Rep. Jenny Graham agrees the death penalty should remain an option for all of the above reasons, and has the firsthand experience to back up her position: Her sister Debra was one of the dozens murdered by Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.
“My sister was one of the [first] seven cases that he was originally charged with. He was not going to get a way out of her murder. He left the garrote tied around her neck. The paint chips led right back to him. He knew it – he wasn’t going to get out of it. So after that is when he ended up offering – ‘okay, I don’t want to die myself, so I will offer you answers to all of the questions you have, and I will lead you to the other bodies if you take death off the table,’” Graham recalled.
Despite that example, those on the other side say it is a reason of how the death penalty is unfair. The question they pose: How can you sentence someone to death for killing one person, when a man like Gary Ridgeway — who killed more than 50 — was able to cut a deal to avoid it?
The bill had already passed the Senate this session. But as of Wednesday, it failed to get through the House — a big disappointment for Ferguson.
“Like many Washingtonians, I’m extraordinarily disappointed the House of Representatives refused to bring death penalty repeal legislation up for a vote,” Ferguson said.
“Simply put, the votes are there,” he added. “We provided House leadership with a bipartisan list of 54 members committed to voting to abolish Washington’s death penalty. There’s no other way to put it – I’m extremely disappointed.”