Washington State Governor and Democrat Jay Inslee has placed a statewide suspension on the death penalty. He said that he hopes that the decision will facilitate “a growing national conversation about capital punishment.” At a recent news conference, Inslee stated that there were too many flaws in the death penalty system and that too many doubts have been raised about capital punishment. He added that “there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.” Inslee made the decision after months of deliberation that included meetings with law enforcement and prosecutors as well as family members of victims.
The decision also follows a very recent change in that state’s witness protocol. The new protocol would have allowed witnesses to view the entire process. Previously, two parts of the execution process had been shielded from view: the placement of intravenous catheters for executions performed by lethal injection and the use of television monitors that would observe the inmate as he or she enters the death chamber and is strapped down. Dan Pacholke, the state’s D.O.C. assistant secretary of the prisons division said that it was likely that television monitors would also be used to view the IV insertion from an overhead position. Lethal injection is the default method of execution in Washington unless the inmate sentenced to death chooses hanging as the preferred method. Washington’s Department of Corrections had been working on these changes for many months, and the protocol was in the final stages of approval.
Inslee’s decision also comes at a crucial time for one of the nine men awaiting execution at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. In one of these cases, the Washington State Supreme Court just last month rejected a petition for inmate Jonathan Lee Gentry’s release from death row, who had been sentenced for the 1988 murder of a 12-year-old girl. A remaining state stay on Gentry’s execution was expected to be lifted this month, and a federal stay had recently been lifted. The last execution in Washington State was in September of 2010. Lethal injection took the life of Cal Coburn Brown who had been convicted of murdering of a Seattle-area woman in 1991. Inslee was elected in 2012 and has said, “During my term, we will not be executing people,” adding “nobody is getting out of prison, period.”
Lawmakers were briefed by the governor’s staff about the death penalty moratorium last night and this morning. Governor Inslee will issue a reprieve if a case that involves the death penalty comes across his desk. A reprieve neither commutes the sentences of those condemned to death, nor does it pardon them. In a draft statement recently obtained by The Associated Press, Inslee says that the use of the death penalty is unequal and inconsistent: “Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. Also in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”
While Washington’s governor Jay Inslee has suspended the death penalty, last year Maryland abolished it. Maryland was the sixth state to do so in the last six years. The death penalty is illegal in eighteen states in the U.S.
By Donna Westlund