State lawmakers to again consider eliminating capital punishment

By Taylor McAvoy

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — A bill to be introduced this session would eliminate the death penalty in Washington state and require people convicted of first-degree murder to serve life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson requested Senate bill 6052 after Senate bills proposing the same legislation did not pass through a committee hearing last year.

“I’m reasonably optimistic that this could be the year,” Ferguson said, mentioning the bill’s bipartisan sponsorship. “The votes are there.”

Despite other legislative priorities, Ferguson said this year might be different with a Democratic majority in the senate.

“The fact is that taxpayers foot the multi-million dollar appeals process for the accused and we spend $50,000 a year for incarceration,” Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, the bill’s prime sponsor, wrote in an email.

“A life sentence with no chance of early release saves money and issues the ultimate punishment by denying the convicted their freedom and liberties for life just as they did their victim.”

Not denying an individual’s right to appeal, Walsh also noted that there are cases in which an individual can be exonerated if new evidence arises.

Still, the appeals process and litigation for these cases can cost the state millions of dollars which Senator Walsh said outweighs the cost of keeping someone in prison for life in many cases.

In a 2015 study from Seattle University’s School of Law examining 147 aggravated first degree murder cases since 1997, authors estimated the average cost of capital punishment cases to be more than $3 million compared to cases that did not seek the capital punishment to be about $2 million.

The largest differential factors being trial level prosecution costs which are 2.3 times more expensive in capital punishment cases than cases that do not seek the death penalty, court and police costs which are 3.9 times more costly, and appeals which are 5.7 times more costly.

Walsh said the economic argument is a compelling one, but she says stories of the lives affected by the death penalty are also worth discussing.

There are eight incarcerated individuals on death row, according to the state Department of Corrections. The last person to be executed in the state was Cal Coburn Brown in 2010.

In February, 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington state. The moratorium allows Inslee to grant reprieves so no prisoners are executed but does not pardon them.

According to a press release last year, capital punishment is “unequally applied” and “sometimes dependent on the size of the county’s budget.”

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington state Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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