GOP legislators take up defense of death penalty
by Tom James
A largely symbolic proposal to end the death penalty drew a crowd of advocates and ordinary citizens to the Capitol to speak out in favor of the idea this week, but none to support keeping the penalty.
Instead, two legislators led the charge in favor of the punishment, using time allotted for questions to passionately challenge advocates of the ban at a hearing Wednesday. Remarks from both sides frequently wandered from the specifics of the bill (HB 1504), which proposes ending the expensive process of capital punishment as a way to cut costs, into the morality of the penalty itself, and even into specific cases. Enough people attended that time limits had to be imposed, with testimony taking up the whole hour-and-a-half of the hearing.
In an exchange typical of the morning, death penalty opponent Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, traded words with fellow Republican Reps. Brad Klippert of Kennewick and Jay Rodne of North Bend. Walsh opened her testimony by reading a letter from former Washington Gov. Dan Evans objecting to the death penalty. In the letter, Evans talked about a visit to Washington's death row.
"Do you know if Governor Evans ever visited a heinous crime scene," Klippert asked, "where someone has been brutally, evilly, and with all malice murdered or dismembered or executed?"
Walsh acknowledged that she did not know. Following a statement by Walsh that keeping criminals in prison for life might actually create jobs for prison guards, Rodne asked emotionally if it was worth the risk of keeping killers as inmates.
"What about that poor woman prison guard […] who had a convict, who was in there for murder, who took a power cord and strangled the life out of her?" asked Rodne, referring to murdered Monroe prison guard Jamie Bindle.
"What about her? What do you say to her, Maureen?"
A third legislator on the committee, Rep. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce Co., also spoke up once against the bill.
Introduced to the committee after an important deadline had passed and under the shadow of Republican-controlled Senate, the proposal is generally seen as having a slim chance at passing this year. Still, bills are sometimes introduced simply to bring attention to controversial issues. And since the bill does promise substantial cost savings, it is possible it could be classified as something necessary to implement the budget, which would exempt it from that deadline.
Klippert questioned the bill's sponsor, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, as to whether the bill was actually a proposal to cut costs, or just a moral challenge masquerading as a budget measure.
Carlyle said that although he objected to the death penalty personally, "the primary rationale for the elimination of the death penalty is the disproportionately large expense associated with capital punishment as opposed to life in prison without the possibility of parole."
According to a study by the Washington State Bar Association submitted at the hearing, death penalty trials cost about $800,000 more than non-death penalty trials. Death row prisoners are also typically held in the most secure — and most costly — prison facilities.
In response, Rodne said the death penalty wouldn't cost so much if convicts weren't allowed to fight it so hard.
Rodne said he thought that much of the cost of the death penalty was due to barriers imposed by defense attorneys in what amounted to "a purposeful campaign to raise the cost of death penalty cases beyond the level most counties can afford."
"Based on arguments made by defense counsel," Rodne said, "there have been barrier after barrier, costly barriers, imposed on the process."
Other testimony at the event ranged over a variety of arguments. Along with cost, the issues of effectiveness, fallibility and the rationale of seeking revenge were raised.
Advocates said that some of the states that execute the most people also have high rates of violent crime, and that fact shows capital punishment doesn't deter criminals. Noting that many have been exonerated from death row or proven innocent after execution, advocates said the system poses too great of risks for too little reward for society.
For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.