Thursday, 1 February 2007

Washington lawmakers consider limiting death penalty

Washington lawmakers consider limiting death penalty

By Associated Press

Feb 01, 2007 - 06:15:56 am PST

A third effort would put a moratorium on executions until July 2008 -- though no one appears in danger of being executed before then -- while a task force studies the application of the death penalty in Washington. The House version of the task force bill is set for a Judiciary Committee hearing Friday.

The topic has gained currency 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 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.

"That's an ongoing discussion that we need to have," said Rep. Chris Strow, a Republican from Clinton who sponsored the DNA bill. "The biggest utility for the death penalty in Washington state right now is for forcing a plea bargain. We already have a system that makes it virtually impossible to force anyone to go under the needle."

Maleng announced Tuesday that he would seek the death penalty for Conner Schierman, a 25-year-old maintenance worker accused of knifing to death the family of National Guard Sgt. Leonid Milkin in Kirkland last summer, then burning the home to conceal the crime. At the time, Milkin was serving in Iraq.

It's the first case in which Maleng has sought the death penalty since Ridgway. 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; whether prosecutors uniformly file aggravated first-degree murder charges, the only crime that can bring the death penalty; the costs associated with trials and appeals; and whether it is applied randomly, as the four dissenting Supreme Court justices determined.

The appointment of such a commission was called for by the state bar association's death penalty subcommittee following an 18-month study that concluded last December.

The subcommittee's report raised questions about the wisdom of continuing to 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.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, derisively dismissed the task force bills, suggesting that any task force was likely to be stacked with death-penalty opponents.

"There is already a desired outcome: to do away with the death penalty," Roach said. "They'll come down and use that finding to try to change the law next year. Let's not have legislators hiding behind a task force. Put it up. Let's hear what people have to say."

Roach is a critic of the decision to spare Ridgway, and said the debate should be focused on why he didn't get the death penalty, not whether the death penalty is proper.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle and the Judiciary Committee's chairman, said lawmakers are not clamoring to do away with the death penalty, but they do want to ensure it is being applied as fairly as possible. Kline, a death penalty opponent, sponsored a bill that would bar the state from executing mentally ill defendants whose appreciation for their acts is "significantly impaired." Mentally retarded defendants already may not be executed.

Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, has introduced a similar bill in the House. Strow said his DNA bill was designed to ensure innocent people aren't given the death penalty.

"I'm not a death penalty opponent, but you want to be darn sure you're right before you execute somebody," Strow said. "I take protecting human life very seriously."

Roach also criticized that bill, though.

"You can watch somebody get run over again and again and still not have any DNA evidence," she said.


The Senate bills are SB5787 and 5786.

The House bills are HB1518, 1890 and 1707.

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