April 2014 Bar Bulletin
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April 2014 Bar Bulletin

Death Penalty Moratorium Sparks Debate

By Brynn Smith and Mark Cooke


On February 11, Governor Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on executions while he remains in office. He made this decision after an extensive review of Washington's capital punishment system, which included speaking with prosecutors, corrections officials, and murder victims' family members who support and oppose the death penalty.

Gov. Inslee concluded, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served."

The moratorium marks a striking shift in Washington's death penalty policy; however, it is worth noting that the state has wavered in its support for capital punishment before. Since becoming a state in 1899, Washington has twice repealed the death penalty. Our current death penalty statute, codified in RCW Chapter 10.95, has been in place since 1981.

Though Gov. Inslee's action was dramatic, it is consistent with a broader trend seen around the nation. Six states in the last six years have abolished the death penalty. Also, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011 and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted a temporary reprieve to a death row inmate in 2013. Like Gov. Inslee, both governors cited inconsistent application and evolving attitudes about capital punishment.

In explaining his decision, Gov. Inslee pointed to two troubling facts about the application of Washington's death penalty: The death penalty is not always applied to the "most heinous offenders," and whether someone receives a death sentence or not can depend on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.

Take the example of Gary Ridgway, who was convicted of killing 49 women and received a life sentence, while five of the nine individuals on Washington's death row received a death sentence for a single victim. Some may say that Ridgway was an exceptional case, citing the deal he made with prosecutors to spare his life in exchange for disclosing the location of his victims' remains. But he is not the only mass murderer whose conviction resulted in a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

Ben Ng and Kwan Fai Mak, convicted of murdering 13 people in the Wah Mee Massacre, also received life sentences. Robert Yates initially received a life sentence for killing 13 women in Spokane County and only later received a death sentence after Pierce County prosecutors convicted him of two additional murders. Here we have the same man receiving two different sentences in two different counties. While one can speculate about the reasons behind the geographic disparities, the reality is that some counties simply cannot afford to prosecute a death penalty case.

Along with county budget concerns, another key factor is the exorbitant cost inherent in pursuing capital cases. Prosecuting a death penalty case from start to finish is more expensive than keeping someone in prison for the rest of their life. Two ongoing King County cases illustrate this point: Michelle Anderson and Joseph McEnroe are still awaiting trial for killings that occurred in 2007. According to The Seattle Times, defense and prosecution costs already have reached nearly $7 million, before trial, sentencing or mandatory appeals.

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