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Governor announces capital punishment moratorium; will not affect those already on death row

Gov. Jay Inslee - Reporter file photo
Gov. Jay Inslee
— image credit: Reporter file photo

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he is imposing a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in the state, saying that “use of capital punishment is inconsistent and unequal, and it’s time to have a conversation about ensuring equal justice under the law.”

“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee continued, “and 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.”

According to the governor’s office, the moratorium means “that if a death penalty case comes to the governor’s desk for action, he will issue a reprieve.”

An important distinction, as well, Inslee said, is that this moratorium does not affect the nine men already on death row in Washington state.

“Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men on death row in Walla Walla,” he said. “I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me. This action does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender. But I do not believe their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.”

The governor’s office notes that “the majority of Washington’s death penalty sentences are overturned, and those convicted are rarely executed, indicating questionable sentencing in many cases.” Since 1981, when the current death penalty was put in place here in Washington, 32 defendants have been sentenced to die. Eighteen had their sentences converted to life in prison, while one was actually set free.

“I want to acknowledge that there are many good protections built into Washington state’s death penalty law. But there have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment,” Inslee noted. “There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death, there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”

Washington joins a number of other states that have re-examined the issue of capital punishment, with 18 outlawing it all together, and seven others enacting similar moratoriums.

“With my action today I expect Washington state will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment. I welcome that and I’m confident that our citizens will engage in this very important debate,” Inslee noted.

The governor’s office indicated that RCW 10.01.120 “gives authority to the Office of the Governor to halt death warrants.”

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a response to Inslee’s announcement, saying his office will continue to carry out its duties in light of the moratorium.

“Washington’s Constitution and state statutes grant the governor significant powers over the fate of individuals sentenced to death,” Ferguson said in a press release. “Consequently, the governor has the authority to hit the ‘pause’ button for executions in Washington.”

Ferguson’s office represents the state of Washington when death row inmates file habeas corpus petitions (challenges to their convictions or sentences) with the federal courts. His office also represents the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in both state and federal court litigation challenging death row inmates’ conditions of confinement and DOCs execution policies and procedures.

“Consistent with the governor’s announcement, the Office of the Attorney General will continue to defend the state against cases brought by death row inmates challenging their convictions and sentences,” Ferguson said.


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