Thursday, February 15, 2018

Washington Senate votes to end the death penalty; Spokane County's prosecutor believes voters should decide

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 4:24 PM

Washington state senators narrowly passed a bill yesterday that would put an end to capital punishment in the state. Following a passionate debate, the bill passed by a vote of 26-22 and now awaits consideration in the House.

click to enlarge Washington Senate votes to end the death penalty; Spokane County's prosecutor believes voters should decide
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell
Senators opposed to the bill tried to amend it by carving out exemptions for people who kill corrections officers and by letting voters, rather than the legislature, decide — a path that Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell says he prefers.

"Since the death penalty was brought forward by the people of this state via an initiative (albeit quite some time ago), it would be best for the people to speak to the issue via the referendum process," Haskell writes via email. "I am in support of that."

During this legislative session, lawyers, researchers, victims, family members and advocates have given compelling testimony for and against capital punishment.

Washington's Attorney General Bob Ferguson testified before the Senate Law and Justice Committee in January that 75 percent of death penalty cases in the state get overturned on appeal.

"Where else in government are we satisfied with a 25 percent success rate for a program that costs taxpayers millions of dollars?" Ferguson asked.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has been an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, arguing in part that it's too expensive. In smaller counties, for example, prosecutors may not have the budget to pursue the death penalty, which means it is unevenly applied across the state, Satterberg wrote in an op-ed for the Seattle Times.

A 2015 study out of Seattle University found that death-penalty cases costs taxpayers an average of $1 million more than cases where prosecutors seek a life sentence.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, however, testified in January that he believes the debate should not focus on economics, but rather on moral objection or support for capital punishment.

Haskell has declined to say whether he morally supports or opposes the death penalty. But says he believes execution should never be held over the head of a defendant as a tactic to elicit a guilty plea to a lesser sentence.

"However, if death is charged and a plea to [life without parole] is offered, I would give great deference to family members in reaching my decision of how to go forward," he writes via email.

Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) voted in support of the bill. Republican senators Mike Padden, Mark Schoesler and Shelly Short voted against. Sen. Michael Baumgartner was excused from the vote due to a family emergency.

There are currently eight men on death row in Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, which means no executions will be carried out while he is in office. But inmates continue to appeal their cases.

"If a referendum were to go to the people and they were to affirm their belief that the death penalty should remain, I would ask for it in only the most egregious cases," Haskell writes. "Also, if the bill to eliminate the death penalty as a charging option becomes state law, as always, we will follow the law."

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Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.