Proposal to eliminate the death penalty passes the state Senate

After passionate floor debate, the bill moves to the state House

OLYMPIA — A bill to eliminate the death penalty in Washington state is a step closer to being signed into law.

SB 6052 passed by a slim majority vote 26-22 that came just before the Feb. 14 cutoff deadline to move bills out of their legislative chamber of origin.

“I have no sympathy for people who kill people, that is not why I’m doing this,” said state Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, one of the bill’s sponsors during floor debate. “My motivation is simply that this is flawed policy.”

As justification for the bill, Walsh pointed to inequality between large and small counties in their ability to pursue death penalty cases and instances where innocent people who were wrongly sentenced have been put to death.

Before the final vote, the bill went through dramatic procedural gymnastics. State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, introduced an amendment that would have allowed the voters to decide whether or not the death penalty should be repealed. Senators ultimately voted against this amendment.

Two other amendments by Padden and state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Battle Ground, were rejected during the bill’s discussion.

Lt. Gov. and Senate President Cyrus Habib ruled that the amendments weren’t relevant to the bill, and therefore couldn’t be voted on.

One amendment brought by Padden would have made an exception to keep the death penalty for those who kill a law enforcement officer. Another amendment brought by Rivers would have allowed an individual, once found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder, to choose whether or not they want to die.

Several Republicans argued that maintaining the death penalty for those who kill police officers is necessary to maintain the rule of law. State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D–Potlatch, cited four officers who were killed in a November 2009 shooting in Lakewood, while State Sen. Randi Becker, R–Enumclaw, said that officers are increasingly at risk in rural counties.

“It’s open season on officers,” she said.

The decision garnered bitter reactions from some Republicans. State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Spokane, objected to Habib’s ruling to not hold a vote on the latter two amendments.

“I’m disappointed our debate on this issue was stifled today,” he said.

Schoesler also raised concerns over the judiciary’s ability to maintain sentences.

“I have no trust in the judiciary that life without parole means life without parole.”

Lt. Gov. Habib and state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Auburn, both wore a cross on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Catholicism.

“Coincidentally this is Ash Wednesday when we are supposed to reflect on our sins,” Miloscia said. “I firmly believe that despite the evils people commit to each other, we must forgive them.”

Bills to eliminate the death penalty have been introduced in the legislature over recent years but have never made it far.

In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on capital punishment, sparing eight people.

“There has been growing, bipartisan support for ending Washington’s death penalty, and the Senate today voted to do just that,” Inslee wrote in a press release.

“It is unfairly administered, expensive and unavailable in wide swaths of our state,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and co-sponsor of the bill.

As former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Pedersen held the first hearing on a death penalty elimination bill in the state House of Representatives in 2013, according to the release.

The bill now moves to the state House, where it has until Feb. 23 to get passed out of committee.

One of the legislation’s sponsors, state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D–Seattle, said after the vote that he is optimistic it will be approved by the House.

“I think there’s substantial support,” he said. “Many Republicans are openly advocating this position and I think the votes are there … I’m optimistic that it’s going to floor.”