The Senate Law and Justice committee last week heard public testimony on Senate Bill 5339 sponsored by Senator Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, which would replace the moribund death penalty with a mandatory imposition of life imprisonment without parole.
“It’s been a long public discourse the last 10 to 15 years in our state and in our country about this issue,” Carlyle said. “I think 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.”
In October 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. The court converted all death penalty sentences to life in prison without parole. Governor Jay Inslee signed a moratorium on imposing the death penalty in 2014.
“I respectfully suggest that closing the books on this chapter is a responsible public policy step given where the courts and our state have come and that it really solidifies our statute in a way that makes it clear and unequivocal for years to come,” said Carlyle.
District 4 Senator Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley noted that Washington effectively no longer has a death penalty and given the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s ruling last year it would be difficult to craft death penalty legislation that would satisfy the court.
Former state Secretary of the Department of Corrections Dick Morgan testified in support of the bill, speaking on behalf of several other previous DOC secretaries. Morgan said hundreds of prisoners have committed similar crimes and were sentenced to life without parole yet from a management viewpoint they pose no greater risk than those on death row.
“They are from a managerial standpoint indistinguishable from one another, yet the cost of managing those sentenced to death is extraordinarily high for the department,” said Morgan.
Preparing for an execution takes significant additional personnel and is done on a voluntary basis. Morgan noted that it’s common for personnel who have participated in an execution to not wish to do so again.
Since 1904, 78 people have been executed in Washington state, according to the Department of Corrections. The last execution took place in 2010. Cal Brown, convicted of strangling and stabbing a woman to death in 1991, was executed by lethal injection.
A House bill proposed by Representative Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, would allow the death penalty to continue in specific circumstances. HB 1709 would ensure the imposition of the death penalty on inmates charged with first-degree murder committed while serving a prison term. This legislation is in response to the murder of correctional officer Jayme Biendl in 2011 by an inmate serving life in prison, according to Padden.
A companion bill to remove the death penalty, HB 1488, is not currently scheduled for public testimony and is sponsored by Dist. 33 Representative Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines. SB 5339 is scheduled for executive action by the law and justice committee on Thursday.
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