Governor, attorney general propose abolishing death penalty in Washington

OLYMPIA, Wash — Some prosecutors in Washington are lobbying to put the death penalty issue on the ballot.

They say citizens should get to choose whether to keep capital punishment in the state.

But on Monday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said it is the responsibility of state lawmakers to decide the issue. He called a press conference Monday to announce that he and a group of bipartisan lawmakers will introduce a bill in the Legislature to abolish the death penalty. Joining him was Gov. Jay Inslee.

“Death penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

It’s no secret Inslee is against the death penalty. In 2014, he issued a moratorium on the death penalty, and no prisoner has been put to death in the state since then.

Ferguson, a Democrat, said he has bipartisan support for the measure, including that of former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican.

“It’s time to move to common ground; I think life without parole represents common ground,” McKenna said.

Opponents of capital punishment say the system is flawed, pointing out that 156 people on death row were found to have been wrongly convicted since 1979 in the United States.

“In Washington state, we have had one person exonerated off death row,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines.

Currently, there are eight men on Washington's death row; combined they have spent more than a 100 years behind bars. The oldest case is Jonathan Gentry, convicted for bludgeoning a 12-year-old girl to death. The youngest man sentenced to death is Conner Schierman, convicted of killing four members of a family, including two young boys.

But even if the person sitting on death row is guilty, opponents say, it`s costing the state too much.

“We are spending a huge amount of money in our court system,” said state Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place.

“This is a system in which justice is delayed, delayed to the point where the system is broken,” McKenna said.

Although some Republican lawmakers stood by Ferguson`s side on Monday, many more don`t agree.

“If every life is special, unique and important, the only appropriate sanction for the serious crime of taking that individual life is the death penalty,” said state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.

The question is, does the controversial legislation have the votes to pass?

Lawmakers pushing for approval of the measure admit the dynamics of the Legislature has not changed since the last time they fought over this issue

“We face the same dynamic we faced always in the past, but the conversation is at a different level,” said Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way.

Citizens pushing for the end of capital punishment are hoping lawmakers will find the momentum this year, including James Basden who says his brother was executed in North Carolina in 2001.

“Having to be there and watch a clock as they killed him, I feel like we were punished as a family,” Basden said.

If Ferguson is successful and wins passage of the bill to abolish the death penalty, the law will not apply to the eight men currently on death row.