Washington governor suspends death penalty

Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday, ‘There is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system’

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said, "There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment."
David Ryder/Getty Images

Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference on Tuesday that he was suspending the use of the death penalty in Washington state — a move that he hopes will enable officials to "join a growing national conversation about capital punishment." 

"There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment. There are too many flaws in this system today," he said. "There is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system."

The moratorium means that if a death penalty case lands on his desk, he will issue a reprieve, which isn't a pardon and doesn't commute the sentences of those condemned to death.

"Nobody is getting out of prison, period," Inslee said.

The governor's annoucement comes as the debate over the death penalty in the U.S. has heated up after recent executions, using untested drug combinations, have renewed the backlash against capital punishment.

The governor has the authority to change a death sentence to life in prison at hard labor, according to the state Attorney General's website.

"Washington's Constitution and state statutes grant the governor significant powers over the fate of individuals sentenced to death," Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday.

"Consequently, the governor has the authority to hit the 'pause' button for executions in Washington."

The Democratic governor said he came to the decision after months of review, meetings with family members of victims, prosecutors and law enforcement.

"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," he said. "The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred."

Doubting the death penalty

The state's death penalty has become controversial for a variety of reasons, but most critics point to the inconsistencies in its implementation.

In the case of the Green River Killer, Gary L. Ridgway, for example, King County prosecutors dropped their demand for the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation in solving dozens of open murder cases. In the end, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder in 2003 and was given life in prison.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, in a written statement, said the legal consequences of Inslee's decision are limited and state law has not changed.

"A moratorium alone will not resolve the issues raised by the Governor," Satterberg said. "Let's have an informed public debate and let the citizens of Washington decide if we should keep capital punishment in our state."

Nine men await execution at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. 

The state Supreme Court last month rejected death row inmate Jonathan Lee Gentry's petition for release. Gentry was sentenced for the murder of a 12-year-old girl in 1988. The last person executed in the state was Cal Coburn Brown, by lethal injection in September 2010, for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman.

A federal stay of Gentry's execution was recently lifted, and a remaining state stay was expected to be lifted this month.

Inslee said that while he previously supported capital punishment, his review of the law led him to "re-evaluate that position." He also said that since 1981, 32 people in Washington have been sentenced to die but that of those, one was set free and 18 others had their sentences converted to life in prison. 

"When the majority of death penalty sentences lead to reversal, the entire system itself must be called into question," he said. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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