Legislature considers dropping death penalty

— For the second year in a row, state lawmakers are pursuing legislation to ban the use of the death penalty in Washington.

As written, the bill — which was requested by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and has bipartisan support — would prevent local prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in first-degree murder cases and instead mandate the use of life sentence without parole. The Senate bill got a hearing in the Senate Committee on Law and Justice on Monday, Jan. 22.

A different version of the bill was introduced in the Senate during last year’s legislative session, but did not make it out of committee. In the state House, Rep. Tina Orwall, D–Des Moines is sponsoring an identical bill that was also introduced last year but stalled.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who joined Ferguson in speaking to the merits of the Senate bill at the beginning of the hearing, argued that death penalty cases are costly for local governments, are often repealed, and don’t serve public safety goals.

“Our justice system would be stronger without the death penalty,” said Satterberg. “It’s not about what the killers deserve, it’s about what we deserve. And after 38 years this law should undergo the same scrutiny.”

“When a capital case comes in, it siphons off resources that we need for so many other priorities, such as domestic violence cases,” he added. “I think it is far more expensive to hire teams of lawyers to litigate cases for 20 years than to simply pay for inmate costs.”

According to a 2015 Seattle University study, the average death penalty case in Washington costs taxpayers roughly $3 million—over $1 million more than when the death penalty is not pursued by local prosecutors. These estimates include trial and post-conviction incarceration costs.

As for the public safety arguments, Satterberg held that the death penalty isn’t an effective deterrent to crime and that life-without-parole sentences are essentially “death sentences” because inmates with life sentence convictions die in prison.

Ferguson said that 75 percent of death penalty cases in Washington state have been overturned since 1997.

In 2014, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on capital punishment. A year later, The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys endorsed putting capital punishment before voters. However, the issue has never been put on the ballot since.

Those who testified included prosecutors from counties across the state, law enforcement officials, clergy, and families of victims of homicide.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney, Mark Roe, argued that while he personally believes that the death penalty is warranted for the most heinous of violent crimes, capital punishment should be put before voters because it is a moral issue.

“It almost sounds like we would be saying ‘executing people would be okay if it were cheaper’,” he said. “Those people, those jurors, those Washington citizens, should be the ones making this decision.”



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