Gov. Inslee signs bill finding death penalty in WA unconstitutional
Apr 20, 2023, 12:14 PM | Updated: 12:54 pm
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Update 11:54 a.m.:
Thursday, April 20, Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation that repealed a number of unconstitutional state laws, including Washington’s invalid death penalty statute.
In 2018, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s use of the death penalty was “racially biased,” “arbitrary,” and “lacks ‘fundamental fairness.’ ”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has proposed legislation to remove Washington’s death penalty from state law every session since 2017.
“The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s death penalty is invalid because it’s applied in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” Ferguson said. “On Friday, the Legislature took the important and appropriate step of repealing the death penalty from our state statutes once and for all. Thank you to Senator Pedersen for his leadership.”
Washington’s death penalty was among 40 laws removed in a “housekeeping” bill that the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
The court ruled the law was unconstitutional not on its morality, but how it was being applied unequally.
Fifty-eight representatives said yes to striking these unconstitutional statutes from the state’s books, while 39 opposed with Lillian Ortiz-Self excusing herself from the vote. One Republican, Skyler Rude (D-16), joined the Democratic caucus in voting to support the bill, while the rest voted against it.
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An amendment was introduced that would open the bill to the people as a referendum and put portions of the bill up for a vote, but the Democratic majority in the House rejected the amendment.
“The underlying bill removes from the Revised Code of Washington statutes that the Supreme Court or other courts have invalidated. So they are defunct, they no longer exist, as a practical matter, but they’re sitting there in the Revised Code of Washington, which is confusing when you look at it,” said Representative Drew Hansen (D-23) in the Legislature. “The problem is, if you [put it up to a vote], and the people vote to reenact them, they are still unconstitutional. Like it doesn’t alter the Supreme Court’s holding, whether they’re put into play by initiative or by Legislature.”
This decision was hotly contested, as Republican representatives fought against this ruling, including 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh, who noted the court’s 2018 State v. Gregory case stated that “none of these prior decisions held that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional, nor do we.”
“During floor debate, we heard ardent, sensible arguments that without the possibility of a death penalty, some mass murderers would refuse to cooperate with law enforcement agencies,” Walsh stated in a press release after the bill’s passing in the House. “Killers would hide the details of their crimes, including the locations of their victims’ remains. We also heard that bad laws like SB 5087 deny those victims’ families closure and justice. These are strong reasons why Washington needs the death penalty to be an option, even if it’s one only used rarely.”
In 2018, the Northwest Progressive Institute found in a poll that a whopping 69% of Washington voters supported life-in-prison alternatives to the death penalty, with only 24% expressing support for the death penalty.
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“This bad bill is just one more sad example of the interests of criminals being put ahead of the interests of victims and their families,” Walsh continued in his statement. “This needs to stop! Instead of burying the issue in a bill as a not-so-technical fix, the people should be allowed to weigh in with open, meaningful debate. That did not happen with this bill.”
Washington initially abolished the death penalty in 1913, but reinstated it in 1919 up until 1975 when Initiative 316 reinstated the ban for a second time.
The bill now goes to Governor Jay Inslee to be signed into law.