Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday that he was suspending the use of the death penalty in Washington state for as long as he’s in office, announcing a move that he hopes will enable officials to “join a growing national conversation about capital punishment.”
The first-term Democrat said he came to the decision after months of review, meetings with victims’ families, prosecutors and law enforcement.
“There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment; there are too many flaws in this system today,” Inslee said at a news conference. “There is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”
Last year, Maryland abolished the death penalty, the 18th state to do so. In Washington state, legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty have received hearings in recent years, but they’ve never gained political traction. Inslee said he would support a permanent ban from lawmakers.
Washington state hasn’t executed an inmate in more than three years. There have been seven inmates executed this year in the U.S., according to the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Inslee, who was elected in 2012, said executions are “unequally applied” in the state, “sometimes dependent on the size of the county’s budget.” He also said death penalty cases can take years to wind through the legal system and represent a drag on state and local budgets.
He said the system “does not deter crime, costs citizens millions of dollars more than life in prison without parole,” is “uncertain in its application” and “exposes families to multiple decades of uncertainty.”
Inslee’s moratorium means that if a death penalty case comes to his desk, he will issue a reprieve. Reprieves aren’t pardons and don’t commute the sentences of those condemned to death. Under Inslee’s system, death row inmates will remain in prison rather than face execution.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has introduced bills to get rid of the death penalty, said Inslee’s action provides a “profound shift” in momentum for future attempts.
There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904. Since a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for the resumption of executions by states, 1,366 people have been put to death, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
In Washington state, nine men are currently on death row. The state Supreme Court last month rejected a petition for release from Jonathan Lee Gentry, sentenced to death for the murder of a 12-year-old girl in 1988. Gentry could have been the first execution in the state since September 2010.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said he thought Inslee’s move was “out of touch.” He noted that lawmakers have previously rejected opportunities to pass such measures, “because the public and Legislature support keeping that tool.”
Leola Peden, whose daughter was raped and killed in Tacoma in 1996, was outraged at the decision. The man convicted in her daughter’s death, Allen Eugene Gregory, is on death row. Peden, 78, said Inslee hadn’t spoken with her before announcing the new policy. “He’s absolutely wrong,” Peden said.
Karil Klingbeil, whose sister Candy Hemming was killed by former death row inmate Mitchell Rupe in Olympia in 1981, said she was pleased by the governor’s decision.
Klingbeil once supported capital punishment, but in recent years has spoken against it. She cites the emotional toll the appeals process takes on families of survivors as one reason she opposes the penalty.