Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday announced a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.
Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014, but repeal bills introduced since that time have stalled in the Legislature. Ferguson said that he hoped with the attorney general's office officially requesting legislation, it would help elevate the conversation among lawmakers.
Inslee and Ferguson were joined by former Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, Republican Sens. Maureen Walsh and Mark Miloscia and Democratic Sens. Jamie Pedersen and Reuven Carlyle and Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Democrat. Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate and Democrats hold a slight majority in the House.
"This issue transcends politics," Ferguson said.
Last month, Inslee invoked the moratorium as he reprieved Clark Elmore, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Elmore is the first of Washington's death row inmates to exhaust his appeals since the moratorium was put in place.
Reprieves aren't pardons and don't commute the sentences of those condemned to death. As long as the moratorium is in place, death-row inmates will remain in prison rather than face execution.
Inslee said that capital punishment is a difficult issue, but said he ultimately issued his moratorium "because the evidence is absolutely clear."
"Death penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly," he said. "I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions."
McKenna said that death penalty appeals are so lengthy that "this is a system in which justice is delayed and delayed to a point where the system is broken.
"It isn't working anymore," he said. "It is time to move on."
The proposed bills, sponsored by Miloscia in the Senate and Orwall in the House, would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandates instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. The law, however, would not be retroactive, meaning the sentences of Elmore and seven other inmates sentenced to death would not change. However, as long as the moratorium is in place, Elmore and the others would remain at the state prison in Walla Walla.
There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904. The last execution in the state came in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman. After spending nearly 17 years on death row, he was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001.
Capital punishment is currently authorized by the federal government and 31 states, including Washington and Oregon, which also currently has a moratorium in place. Pennsylvania and Colorado also have death penalty moratoriums.
The death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The latest was Delaware, whose Supreme Court last year declared the state's death penalty law unconstitutional.
Republican Sen. Steve O'Ban, vice chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he doesn't support ending the death penalty.
"It's obviously a power the government takes soberly," he said. "But if we value human life, the only appropriate sanction for the most serious crime of taking that precious individual life is the death penalty and should be retained for the most serious cases."
O'Ban said that he's not certain whether the chairman, Sen. Mike Padden, would schedule a hearing for the committee. Padden's spokesman said that Padden was home sick in Spokane Valley and not available for comment.
But O'Ban said he would welcome a public hearing on the issue.
"I think there are strong arguments to retain the death penalty, and I think it might be a healthy thing to rehear those arguments again," he said.
The measure isn't guaranteed a hearing in the House either. Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday that while she's personally supportive of repealing the death penalty, she's got a backlog of bills to hear.
"The thing I always look at is, what is the likelihood of a bill making it to the governor's desk, how many votes do I have, and how much time do I have to hear it," she said. Jinkins' committee heard a similar bill two years ago, but she didn't bring it up for a committee vote, saying at the time that she didn't think it was the right time to move it forward.
But she said that Monday's bipartisan press conference was "profoundly powerful."
"I'm going to try and work to make sure I can hear it," she said.