It’s been 12 years since state senator Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat of the 43rd district, first backed an attempt to abolish the death penalty. Every year he's co-sponsored legislation since his start in the state House in 2007—and not much has changed.
But a new bill this year—and a new Democratic majority—gives hope to longtime supporters of banning capital punishment. Pedersen replaced Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who has consistently opposed abolishing the death penalty, as the new chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
The legislation had its first hearing in the state Senate last week. It’s the farthest a bill to rid Washington of the death penalty has gotten since Pedersen began, and he says he's optimistic about the bill moving forward this time around.
“Those are signs of growing," Pedersen told Seattle Met, "understanding among, I think, a majority of people that the death penalty in our state is broken, can’t be fixed, and needs to be abolished."
Other supporters are making an effort to garner attention to the policy. In a Seattle Times op-ed last month, Republican King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg argued the case to eliminate the death penalty; Seattle city council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan also submitted a joint letter supporting the ban.
As it stands, Washington’s death penalty allows for the execution of individuals found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder by lethal injection or hanging. The last execution was that of Cal Coburn Brown in 2010 for the 1991 rape and murder of 21-year-old Holly Washa. In 2014, Governor Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on the death penalty and suspended the executions of the nine male prisoners on death row in Washington. (There are eight now, after one died of natural causes.) Some point to Inslee’s re-election as proof that a large group of Washington’s voters favor banning capital punishment, and that support seems to be growing.
But the legislation is far from a sure thing. Last week’s hearing showed a mixture of support and opposition from both parties and the families of victims as well. The bill squeaked by the Senate chamber’s introduction with a vote of 4–3. It must still pass through the Senate Rules Committee, which will happen sometime in the next couple weeks, and the deadline for the bill to pass the Senate is 5pm on February 14.
At last week’s hearing, some families of victims at the hearing said death was the only reprieve for their suffering. Others said the real justice would come from having the perpetrator jailed for life. Some supporters of the bill pointed out that execution is costly, while others said cost shouldn’t even factor into a moral debate.
At the hearing for the bill's introduction, Snohomish County prosecuting attorney Mark Roe, a staunch opponent, said the public has a right to vote on such a policy and rejected any financial arguments as callous.
"I just don't think we should be talking about money," he said. "It's almost like saying, 'Gee, we'd be okay with executing people if it were cheaper.'"
Nationally, the public is split almost in half on the death penalty, with 49 percent supporting it and 42 percent opposing it, according to a 2016 Pew Research study.
Peter Collins, a Seattle University professor on criminal justice, said that financing the death penalty is still an important aspect to consider. He conducted a study that found that the death penalty in Washington costs at least $1 million more than cases where death is not sought and, in pushing for the bill himself, noted that there’s also racial bias in the criminal justice system. Put simply, Collins says that the death penalty in Washington simply isn’t working as a system should.
“From a rational standpoint, is it working? No,” he said. “[That’s] regardless if you ethically or morally agree with it.” And when a system doesn’t work, Collins asks, why continue to use it?
Updated 9:43am on February 2, 2018, to correct the spelling of Pedersen's name.