OLYMPIA — Democratic state legislators Kevin Van De Wege and Mike Chapman are party outliers on repealing the state’s death penalty.
Both 24th District lawmakers said last week they favor capital punishment, which the state Senate voted 28-18 on Friday to repeal as a sentencing option for aggravated first-degree murder.
The legislation, SB 5339, makes life without the possibility of parole mandatory in the death penalty’s place.
Gov. Jay Inslee also imposed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in February 2018.
In October 2018, the state Supreme Court struck down the death penalty statute as being administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner, leaving open the option that lawmakers could impose capital punishment if imposed in a constitutional manner.
Van De Wege, a Sequim resident, was one of four Democrats who voted Friday against the repeal, along with 14 Republicans.
Four Senate Republicans joined 24 Democrats in voting for the measure.
SB 5339 was scheduled for a first reading Monday in the House Public Safety Committee.
“The reason I’m mainly against it is for the hammer effect, the threat of the death penalty that is used by prosecutors to negotiate all kinds of things,” Van De Wege said.
Chapman, a state representative and Port Angeles resident, said he is a rarity among his 57 Democratic colleagues in the House.
“It’s pretty standard fare for most Democrats to be against the death penalty,” he said.
In separate interviews Chapman and Van De Wege cited, as an example of the hammer effect, the prosecution of Gary Ridgeway, 70, also known as the Green River Killer. Ridgeway pleaded guilty to 49 murders of women that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s in King County.
He avoided the death penalty in a 2003 plea bargain in which he received life in prison without parole, receiving 49 life sentences in return for disclosing the location of missing women.
“It brought closure to those families,” Van De Wege said.
“The hammer effect of the death penalty is the biggest reason that I prefer it stay in place.”
Chapman, Van De Wege, and Democratic state Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, who is against the death penalty, represent Clallam and Jefferson counties and the northern half of Grays Harbor County.
Van De Wege, who is up for re-election in November, also noted his representation of a district that includes Clallam Bay Corrections Center, which houses maximum-security inmates.
It’s one of two maximum security prison in Washington state, including the Washington State Penitentiary, where Ridgeway is incarcerated and where the death penalty has been carried out by lethal injection or hanging.
Van De Wege said the death penalty should also continue as a deterrent to life-term inmates harming corrections officers.
“A lot of people at Clallam Bay are never getting out,” he said.
“For those types of people in maximum security, the threat of the death penalty is one thing that is hopefully keeping them in line, and getting rid of it would severely limit the options of punishment for someone who’s in there for life.”
Van De Wege said death penalty opponents often point to the higher incidence of minorities on death row, an argument he said does not apply to Washington state.
In its 2018 ruling, the state Supreme Court said African American defendants were 4⅓ times more likely to be sentenced to death in the state than “similarly situated” white defendants, according to the Senate Bill Report on SB 5339.
Van De Wege said Monday that solely white males have been executed in Washington state since the 1970s.
“There’s a difference between being executed and being on death row,” he said.
Chapman said Friday he would be surprised if the House even votes on repeal before the Legislature adjourns March 12.
Inslee’s moratorium and the Supreme Court’s ruling “in essence” have already repealed capital punishment, he said.
It’s the third straight year the Senate has approved repeal, which in the past two years has not made it out of the House Rules Committee.
“If it does, I would vote not in favor,” said Chapman, a former U.S. Border Patrol inspector.
“It’s a tool for law enforcement and a tool for prosecutors.
“We know crimes have been solved because prosecutors have said, if you cooperate or confess, or show us where the victims lie, we will not prosecute you under the death penalty.”
But Tharinger said murder victims’ families are repeatedly dragged through the courts during lengthy death penalty appeals, extending their pain.
“And the cost is phenomenal,” he said.
“It seems to me that life imprisonment or other options might make sense.”
Charles Rodman Campbell, the last person executed in Washington state, was put to death in 1994 at Walla Walla, 12 years after his murder conviction.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].