Legislators propose replacing the moribund death penalty with the 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, the state Supreme Court ruled 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. Gov. 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,” Carlyle said.
Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) said Washington effectively no longer has a death penalty, and that 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 Department of Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan testified in support of the bill, speaking on behalf of several other previous DOC leaders. 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,” Morgan said.
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 the state, according to the Department of Corrections. The 2010 execution by lethal injection of Cal Brown, who was convicted of strangling and stabbing a woman to death in 1991, is the most recent death sentence carried out.
A house bill proposed by Rep. Carolyn Eslick (R-Sultan) would allow the death penalty to continue in specific circumstances. House Bill 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, Padden said.
A companion bill to remove the death penalty, House Bill 1488, which would also eliminate the death penalty, is not scheduled for public testimony. It is is sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines).
SB 5339 is scheduled for executive action by the Law and Justice Committee on Thursday, Feb. 7.