Washington: Bills Target Death Penalty
February 19, 2007
Bills target death penalty----Lawmakers consider creating task force to
check fairness of executions
Less than a year after the state Supreme Court narrowly upheld
Washington's use of the death penalty, some lawmakers wonder why Green
River Killer Gary Ridgway -- who murdered at least 48 women -- can cop a
plea to spare his life while someone convicted of less can be executed.
HB 1518 and SB 5786 would create a death penalty task force;
HB 1707 and SB 5787 would limit capital punishment for retarded people or
those who have a severe mental disorder;
HB 1890 would require DNA evidence before the imposition of the death
The Legislature is considering a bill that would stay executions until
July 1, 2008, and empanel a task force to review whether the death penalty
is imposed fairly and uniformly in Washington.
King County prosecutors spared Ridgway's life to get details on the 48
murders -- allowing human remains to be found and long-suffering families
to get closure.
But cutting that kind of deal in a death penalty case raises important
legal and ethical questions.
The state Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last June that Washington could continue
to impose the death penalty on people whose crimes were less severe than
Ridgway's, but left it to the Legislature to examine the moral
implications of continuing capital punishment.
Dissenting justices compared the state's inconsistent application of the
death penalty sentence to "lightning, randomly striking," saying it sends
the wrong message to potential criminals.
"If you simply hide bodies and are able to blackmail a prosecuting
attorney into offering you a life sentence so as to bring closure to
victims, what kind of deterrence message is that to those who might be
contemplating murder?" said Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, who is the
sponsor of the bill.
"The message would simply seem to be 'hide the bodies.'"
In addition to suspending all death sentences, the legislation would
create a 14-member task force composed of state Supreme Court justices,
lawmakers, attorneys, civilians and law enforcement personnel to review
whether the death penalty is imposed fairly and uniformly in Washington.
Among the issues it would consider are whether race and economic factors
play a role in sentencing and how the costs of capital punishment affect
local government. The task force would have to report its findings to the
governor by the end of the year.
The bill will make it out of committee, key committee heads said, though
it's unclear whether it will pass the full Legislature.
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng's announcement in late January that he
will seek the death penalty for Conner Schierman, who is accused of
stabbing 4 people before setting their bodies on fire in a Kirkland home,
raises more questions, Williams said.
"All those bodies were found," he said.
Maleng was unavailable for comment last week.
Since Washington instituted the death penalty in its current form in 1981,
it has executed 4 people.
It has sentenced 30 to death, with 20 of those cases being subsequently
overturned by the state Supreme Court or the 9th District Court of
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of
Prosecuting Attorneys, said the task force wouldn't address the moral
questions the Supreme Court posed to the Legislature last year, but would
only rehash procedural issues that the Supreme Court already addressed in
its ruling last year.
"This task force is not going to give any more scrutiny to these cases
than the court already has," said McBride, whose organization represents
county prosecutors across the state.
"It's just trying to avoid the political question, which is the moral
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, drafted the version of the bill in the Senate
and said the intent of the task force is to "look at the death penalty
from an ideologically neutral point of view."
"This is an irrevocable deed when we do it, and we have to make sure we're
using it effectively if we're going to use it at all," said Kline, who
heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vote on the bill.
Some members of that committee expressed concerns that the membership of
the task force could be stacked so that it produces a specific
"What they will do is configure the task force to achieve a desired
outcome," said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
She said legislators are elected to make these kinds of policy decisions,
and the task force would be unnecessary.
"There is not a widespread problem here," she said. "Gary Ridgway -- that
was a problem. But 2 wrongs don't make a right."
Kline said he was working with other legislators to make the bill as
unbiased as possible and is confident it will move out of committee.
He said he morally opposes the death penalty but wants the task force's
review to be fair and impartial.
Williams said that the task force would have to address whether pursuing
the death penalty makes sense economically -- especially considering the
number of sentences that have been overturned and the decision by 3 of the
4 convicts executed in Washington not to appeal their death sentences,
"essentially volunteering" to die rather than spend life in prison.
"The death penalty is effectively not occurring in Washington state, so I
think it's a legitimate public policy question as to whether we should
expend vast resources doing a sanction that at the end of the day is never
imposed, or whether we should alternatively pursue life imprisonment
without any possibility of parole," he said.
According to a report released in December by the Washington State Bar
Association, death penalty trials in Washington generate about $470,000
more in costs than non-death penalty trials for aggravated murder.
After sentencing, the average appeal costs the defense an extra $100,000,
and prisoners' petitions against personal restraints cost about $137,000
more in public defense funds.
"We believe that it is important for the state to look at the costs
involved with these cases and how they're handled, and how they impact the
various jurisdictions, that is, the counties and the state," said Joanne
Moore, director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense. "It is
expensive at all stages."
Those who testified last Wednesday at hearings for several death
penalty-related bills disagreed about whether Washington's imposition of
the death penalty is racially biased.
Public concern about the death penalty and racial bias is growing along
with general ambivalence about the practice, said James Dieter, executive
director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
For the first time ever, a Gallup poll from December 2006 showed that more
Americans prefer sentencing criminals to life in prison than sentencing
them to death.
"There's an overall recognition that there may be problems with the death
penalty, and no one wants innocent people executed," Dieter said.
Of the 123 people freed from death row in U.S. history, 14 were exonerated
because of DNA evidence, which may have shaken the public's faith in
capital punishment, he said.
During the last 5 to 10 years, he said, more states have developed task
forces like the one being proposed in Washington to assess their capital
Dieter said a study group is a relatively safe way for politicians to
address concerns about the death penalty without alienating large portions
of their constituents, who have historically been divided on the issue.
Mark Prothero, the Kent lawyer who represented Ridgway in 2003, said that
prosecutors should wonder whether it would be more punishing for criminals
to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
"Ridgway gets an hour out on Tuesday, an hour out on Thursday, an hour out
on Saturday, and spends the rest of his time in an 8-foot by 8-foot cell,"
"That hour out, there's no human contact. He's in a concrete cylinder
that's about 40 feet across and 60 feet high with a cyclone fence on the
top. It's a miserable existence. It's a good alternative to the death
(source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)