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Gov. Jay Inslee imposes moratorium on death penalty in Washington

Gov. Jay Inslee has imposed a moratorium on the state
Gov. Jay Inslee has imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty.
— image credit: Kent Reporter, file photo

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that he is imposing a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in Washington state.

Inslee’s decision comes after months of careful review of the status of capital punishment in Washington state including research on current cases, discussions with prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and family members of homicide victims, and a tour of death row and the execution chambers at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, according to an Office of the Governor news release.

Inslee said it is clear to him 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. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served,” Inslee said. “The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”

The moratorium means that if a death penalty case comes to the governor’s desk for action, he will issue a reprieve. This action does not commute the sentences of those on death row or issue any pardons.

The majority of Washington’s death penalty sentences are overturned and those convicted of capital offenses are rarely executed, indicating questionable sentencing in many cases. Since 1981, the year Washington state’s current capital laws were put in place, 32 defendants have been sentenced to die. Of those, 18 had their sentences converted to life in prison and one was 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 said. “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.”

Inslee stressed that the moratorium is not a show of mercy for the criminals awaiting execution.

“Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men on death row in Walla Walla,” the governor 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.”

RCW 10.01.120 gives authority to the Office of the Governor to halt death warrants. Eighteen states have outlawed the death penalty and seven states have a moratorium imposed by the governor or the courts. Inslee says he knows this is an emotional and heated issue, and that his announcement places Washington into a growing national conversation.

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

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