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Washington Senate passes bill to repeal the death penalty

(Photo credit: PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A measure that would repeal the state’s death penalty law has passed the Senate for the third time in three years, with supporters of the bill hoping that new leadership in the House means the Legislature will make permanent a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down capital punishment as arbitrary and racially biased.

With a 28-18 vote Friday, the Senate approved the measure that would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandating instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration, where it has stalled in previous years. Gov. Jay Inslee has said he will sign it if it makes it to his desk. New Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins has said she personally supports the bill but that the caucus has not yet discussed it.

Before the 2018 ruling, execution was already rare in Washington, and a governor-imposed moratorium has blocked its use since 2014. But the court’s decision eliminated it entirely, converting the sentences for the state’s eight death row inmates to life in prison without release.

The court did not rule out the possibility that the Legislature could come up with another manner of imposing death sentences that would be constitutional, which led to the recent attempts to change state law.

There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904, with the most recent execution in the state in 2010.

Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, the bill’s sponsor, said that attitudes of Americans on the death penalty have changed, and pointed to the number of states that have moved to abolish it.

“Now that we have firm resolution from both the executive branch and the judiciary branch, it is time for the legislative branch that sets the laws of our state to make a final determination on this particular legislation,” Carlyle said.

Including Washington’s court ruling, the death penalty has been overturned or abolished in 21 states and the District of Columbia. An additional four states — California, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — currently have moratoriums. Other states are currently considering measures, including Colorado, where the Senate on Friday approved a measure repealing the death penalty.

Republican Sen. Keith Wagoner argued that abolishing the death penalty denies victims and their families justice, and removes a tool that prosecutors and law enforcement need to gain information about other victims.

“I think the death penalty is a perfectly appropriate punishment in certain cases, and we need to keep it on the books,” he said.

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