Apr 11, 2023 - Politics

Washington Legislature votes to repeal death penalty

Illustration of the Washington State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Nearly five years after Washington's death penalty law was ruled unconstitutional, the Legislature has voted to permanently repeal capital punishment in the state.

Driving the news: The state House voted 58-39 on Friday to remove remaining references to the death penalty from Washington law.

  • The measure, which was approved by the state Senate in February, now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee.

Why it matters: The Legislature's action has no immediate effect, since a 2018 court ruling already took the death penalty off the table for prosecutors. Yet the law's formal repeal makes "a profound moral statement," state Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), the bill's sponsor, told Axios yesterday.

Background: State executions have long been rare in Washington, with the last one carried out in 2010.

  • In 2014, Inslee issued a moratorium on executions, saying he "was not convinced equal justice is being served."
  • Four years later, the state Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty law, saying it was "imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."
  • Still, the law has remained on the books, with several efforts to remove it for good fizzling out in the Legislature in recent years.

Details: The death penalty repeal is part of a broader measure to purge statutes that have been ruled unconstitutional, yet never officially eliminated.

The other side: Opponents of the bill said they wanted to see the state enact a constitutional version of the death penalty, a possibility the state Supreme Court left open in its 2018 ruling.

  • Some argued that if the death penalty is eliminated, prosecutors will lose what little leverage they have to get murder suspects to cooperate with police.
  • State Rep. Jenny Graham (R-Spokane), whose sister was a victim of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, said Friday that if Ridgway hadn't been afraid of dying, police would not have learned the location of many of his victims' remains and "those families would not have justice."

What's next: To become law, the bill must clear Inslee's desk. But a veto looks unlikely.

  • Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith said although the governor's office has yet to fully review the final version of Pedersen's bill, "the governor's long record of opposing the death penalty has been clear."

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