Washington state's relationship with capital punishment has been complicated at best, at worst it could spur a touch of whiplash. This is understandable given the gravity of the question at hand. The Evergreen State has changed its legislative stance on the death penalty four times since 1914. It has been in (and out of) place since 1849. 1914 saw its first abolition, with reinstatement in 1919. It was again abolished in 1975, but reinstated in 1978, cited as a mandatory penalty for aggravated murder. 78 executions have taken place in the state since 1904; all of those executed were men.
Every execution in the state has been carried out by hanging, excepting of the most recent three. There are eight men currently awaiting capital punishment in the state of Washington, where death row inmates may elect a hanging in lieu of the now-standard lethal injection. It is interesting to note that Washington is the only state in the union with an active gallows - Delaware dismantled theirs in 2003.
Death sentences are commuted by the jury and require absolute unanimity. If the jury is hung, a life sentence is handed down, even if only a single juror opposes the death penalty.
In 2014, Washington governor Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on the penalty. Repeal bills had stalled in the legislature, moving Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson to announce a proposal to formally abolish the penalty in the state. They hope this action will stimulate the gears of the stagnant state legislature. This moratorium halted the scheduled execution of convicted murder Clark Elmore, who raped and murdered his 14-year-old step daughter in 1995 while living under an assumed name. Elmore, who has never disputed guilt in the incident, sought appeals for two decades.
The case nearly went to the Supreme Court but was ultimately denied. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor signed a vigorous 15-page dissent against the denial. Ginsburg and Sotomayor argued that Elmore's exposure to powerful neurotoxins, lack of violent criminal history, and “searing remorse” were enough to commute his sentence to life. Such arguments underline the complexity of cases where the penalty is sought.
Nevertheless, prosecutor Dave McEachran implored Governor Inslee to make an exception in the moratorium and allow Elmore's execution to proceed, to no avail. McEachran argued that a measure against the penalty requires a “case-by-case review of capital cases, not a blanket reprieve for everyone on death row.”
The quandaries surrounding the death penalty are not exclusively ethical. Many have argued that the death penalty process is financially exorbitant, time-consuming, and prolong the family's anguish with dragging trials. Given the imperfections of the legal system, wrongful execution of the innocent is another apprehension of those who oppose it. The 1997 exoneration of a man on death row in Washington punctuated these concerns, although the lines of that particular case were blurred at best.
The Death Penalty Information Center's annual report charted record decline in use of the penalty, with just 20 executions taking place in 2016. (Number of annual executions merely reflects how many were sentenced, some years earlier, to die in that particular year. So this number belies the success of far earlier efforts in the late 1990s.) Regardless, both sentencing and execution are hitting bottom as of late. Florida and Delaware ruled the penalty unconstitutional last year, signaling further victories for abolitionists.
The New Yorker noted the paradox unfolding around the issue - although penalty use is at decade lows, there seems to be marked public desire to retain it as a viable punishment. In California, a vote for abolition failed, while a vote to expedite the penalty's process was passed with 51%. Although a 1% majority is slight of course, it is interesting to note that a state known for its liberal disposition would be so staunchly divided on the issue.
In discussing his moratorium of the penalty, Governor Inslee stated that penalties are "unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly.” Backed by bipartisan support, the proposed bill would remove capital punishment as a sentencing option, replacing it with life without parole. While the bill undergoes legislative scrutiny, the moratorium will continue to protect all those on death row, even if their scheduled date of execution arrives.
Vice Chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee favors retaining the penalty. "It's obviously a power the government takes soberly," he said. "But if we value human life, the only appropriate sanction for the most serious crime of taking that precious individual life is the death penalty and should be retained for the most serious cases.” O'Ban would welcome a public hearing on this issue, which seems endlessly embattled in seesawing politics.