OLYMPIA – A bill to eliminate the death penalty in Washington state is a step closer to being signed into law.
SB 6052 passed by a slim majority vote 26-22 that came just before the cutoff deadline, Wednesday, Feb. 14 at midnight to move bills out of their legislative chamber of origin.
“I have no sympathy for people who kill people, that is not why I’m doing this,” said Senator Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, one of the bill’s sponsors during floor debate. “My motivation is simply that this is flawed policy.”
As justification for the bill, Walsh pointed to inequality between large and small counties in their ability to pursue death penalty cases and instances where innocent people who were wrongly sentenced have been put to death. She also argued that some families of victims do not receive vindication from capital punishment.
Before the final vote, the bill went through dramatic procedural gymnastics.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane introduced an amendment that would have allowed the voters to decide whether or not the death penalty should be repealed. Senators ultimately voted against this amendment.
Two other amendments by Padden and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Battle Ground, were rejected during the bill’s discussion.
Lieutenant Governor and Senate President Cyrus Habib ruled that the amendments weren’t relevant to the bill, and therefore couldn’t be voted on.
One amendment brought by Padden would have made an exception to keep the death penalty for those who kill a law enforcement officer. Another amendment brought by Rivers would have allowed the person, once found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder, to choose whether or not they want to die.
Several Republicans argued that maintaining the death penalty for those who kill police officers is necessary to maintain the rule of law.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D–Potlatch, cited four officers who were killed in a shooting in Lakewood in November, 2009, while Sen. Randi Becker, R–Enumclaw, said that officers are increasingly at risk in rural counties. “It’s open season on officers,” she said.
Sen. O’Ban argued that with eliminating the death penalty there would be a “loss of order and respect for the rule of law.”
The decision garnered bitter reactions from some Republicans. Senator Mark Schoesler, R-Spokane, objected to Habib’s ruling to not hold a vote on the latter two amendments.
“I’m disappointed our debate on this issue was stifled today,” he said.
Schoesler also raised concerns over the judiciary’s ability to maintain sentences. “I have no trust in the judiciary that life without parole means life without parole.”
Lt. Gov. Habib and Senator Mark Miloscia, R-Auburn, both wore a cross on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Catholicism.
“Coincidentally this is Ash Wednesday when we are supposed to reflect on our sins,” Miloscia said. “I firmly believe that despite the evils people commit to each other, we must forgive them.”
Bills to eliminate the death penalty have been introduced in the Legislature over recent years, but have never made it far.
In 2014, Governor Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on capital punishment, sparing eight people.
“There has been growing, bipartisan support for ending Washington’s death penalty, and the Senate today voted to do just that,” Inslee wrote in a press release. “I hope Washington joins the growing number of states that are choosing to end the death penalty.”
“It is unfairly administered; expensive; and unavailable in wide swaths of our state,” Chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said of capital punishment in a press release.
“Those convicted of aggravated first-degree murder should die in prison with no hope of parole. The taxpayers do not need to spend millions of dollars to hasten that death.”
As former Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Pedersen held the first hearing on a death penalty elimination bill in the House of Representatives in 2013, according to the release.
The bill now moves over to the state House, where it has until Feb. 23 to get passed out of committee.
One of the legislation’s sponsors, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D–Seattle, said after the vote that he is optimistic that it will be approved by the House. “I think there’s substantial support,” he said. “Many Republicans are openly advocating this position and I think the votes are there … I’m optimistic that it’s going to floor.”
Taylor McAvoy and Josh Kelety are reporters with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.