Local lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support retaining the death penalty as an option for the most “heinous” murders.
The state Senate on Friday voted 28-19 to repeal the death penalty. Both of the local area’s senators, Longview Democrat Dean Takko and Centralia Republican John Braun, voted against the measure, meaning they favor keeping the death penalty as an option. An identical bill is making its way through the House.
The measure, requested by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, removes capital punishment as a sentencing option and replaces it with life in prison without a possibility of parole. Gov. Jay Inslee said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Execution was already rare in Washington, totaling 78 since 1904 (66 have been Caucasian), according to the State Department of Corrections. Gov. Inslee imposed a moratorium on it in 2014. Eight inmates were on death row in October, when the State Supreme Court found that “the death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
“The use of the death penalty is unequally applied – sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal,” the court found in State v. Gregory.
Takko broke ranks with many of his fellow Democrats and voted against the measure to ban capital punishment because he said Tuesday there are cases in which it is “appropriate.”
Takko cited the case of Jayme Biendl, a Monroe, Wash., corrections officer killed by an inmate in 2011. The inmate was already serving life in prison without parole at the time.
“It’s frustrating to see those types of activities and have them not pay the price,” Takko said.
The high legal costs around death row cases are created by the “convoluted appeals process,” which should be addressed rather than abolishing the penalty, he said.
Braun gave similar reasoning for his “no” vote Tuesday and said the bill is somewhat unnecessary given last year’s Supreme Court ruling. He said although he is sympathetic to the repeal, there are cases when it is appropriate.
Braun said that if the option of capital punishment is not repealed, he would like to see reforms to address the Supreme Court’s concerns.
The bill has been referred to the House Public Safety Committee. If it comes to a vote of the full House, state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said he would oppose repealing the death penalty to keep it around for the most egregious crimes.
“The question of whether to seek the death penalty is something the prosecutor should be trusted with,” Orcutt said. “I would trust them to make the decision and if I didn’t like what they were doing, I would vote for someone else.”
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he has taken both sides of the issue in the past but would likely vote to keep capital punishment an option.
“While I agree with many points supporters make, I want to give law enforcement and prosecutors the option of having that available even if it is rarely used,” Walsh said Tuesday. “Prosecutors can often use the penalty as part of the negotiation to get a good resolution to an investigation or a prosecution.”
Concerns about this high legal costs of death row cases are valid, but Walsh said cost should not be the first consideration in the adjudication of heinous crimes.
He said the question of the death penalty’s constitutionality is valid and should be focused on in discussions with law enforcement and prosecutors to make sure it is used justly.
“Some cases warrant it but we want to make sure it is applied in the best way,” Walsh said.