February 14, 2007
WA lawmakers consider limiting death penalty
By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Bill Babbitt held up photos of his decorated Vietnam War
veteran brother Wednesday as he asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would
allow defendants to avoid the death penalty by showing they were severely
Babbitt's brother Manny was executed in California in 1999 for the 1980
murder of 78-year-old Leah Schendel. Babbitt was sentenced to death for
breaking into Schendel's apartment and beating her. She died of a heart
Babbitt said his brother, who received a Purple Heart in prison for wounds
suffered at the siege of Khe Sanh, suffered from mental illness and had
spent time in a mental hospital.
"I supported the death penalty until 1980 when it came knocking on my door,"
Bill Babbitt, who traveled from Elk Grove, Calif., told members of the House
Judiciary Committee. "My brother went to Vietnam and came back severely
mentally ill, he never would have killed without the war wounds that
The bill would bar the state from executing mentally ill defendants whose
appreciation for their acts is "significantly impaired." Mentally retarded
defendants already are barred from execution. Under the measure "severe
mental disorder" does not include mental illness or defects due to alcohol
or drug abuse, or repeated criminal conduct.
Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia and the bill's sponsor, said that the bill
would make a "necessary change to the law."
"If someone lacks the full capacity to make the conscious choice to do
wrong, I believe that in a just society, they should not be subjected to the
retribution of the death penalty."
Under the measure, the defendant must prove that he does indeed have a
severe mental disorder, and if a judge or jury agrees, the defendant must be
sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
But Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of
Prosecuting Attorneys, said that the definition is too broad, and that if
the bill passes as worded, "It's close to an effective repeal of the death
"Won't the average juror say, 'of course there's something wrong with this
person because a normal person doesn't do that?'" he asked. "This is the
broadest definition you could pick. It's going to be wide open."
The committee also heard testimony on another measure sponsored by Williams
that would put a moratorium on executions until July 2008 - though none are
expected by then - while a task force studies the application of the death
penalty in Washington.
The task force bills in the House and Senate call for a 14-member commission
to review the application of the death penalty, including whether race,
gender or economic status play roles in who gets it, and whether prosecutors
uniformly charge aggravated first-degree murder, the only crime that can
carry the death penalty in this state. The proposed commission would also
review the costs associated with trials and appeals, and whether the death
penalty is applied randomly, as four dissenting state Supreme Court justices
Williams said it's important for the Legislature to take up the death
penalty issue, since the state Supreme Court upheld Washington's capital
punishment law 5-4 last year and invited lawmakers to reconsider the death
penalty's fairness in light of King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng's decision
in 2003 to spare the life of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway. Ridgway
pleaded guilty to killing 48 women, and helped authorities find remains, in
exchange for life in prison without release.
"There is no other branch of government to whom we can in turn delegate this
task to," Williams said. "The buck stops here."
The appointment of such a commission was called for by the state bar
concluded last December.
seek execution, given the exorbitant costs of such trials and the
overwhelming likelihood of reversal by appeals courts. The state has spent
millions of dollars pursuing death in 79 cases over the last 25 years, with
four executions to show for it. Three of the convicts executed had waived
their appeals and volunteered to be killed.
McBride said the state doesn't need another study on the death penalty.
He said the main problem with the task force proposal is that it "avoids the
moral and ethical question about the death penalty."
He said the recent Supreme Court ruling said that the moral question was up
to the Legislature.
"If you want to debate the moral question, we would welcome that," he said.
"Because quite frankly prosecutors are not unanimous on that issue. The
problem with this study is it avoids the moral question."
"It's disappointing to me that this is more of the same of what we've done
for 25 years," he said. "Really what we need to talk about is, is it moral
to impose the death penalty or not?"
Last month, Maleng announced he would seek the death penalty in the slaying
of a soldier's family, the first case in which he has sought the death
penalty since Ridgway.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also heard public testimony on the bills
Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor and chairwoman of the House committee, said she
wasn't certain sure that either measure would have the votes to pass her
The death penalty task force bills are Senate Bill 5786 and House Bill 1518.
The measures concerning mentally impaired defendants are Senate Bill 5787
and House Bill 1707.
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