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Death penalty repeal backed as cheaper, smarter

Testimony went overwhelmingly against Washington’s death penalty at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic Wednesday.

A bipartisan group of four representatives has introduced a bill to repeal Washington’s death penalty. Roughly a dozen people testified in favor of the bill. Only the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs testified against the bill introduced by Reps. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.

Mitch Barker, executive director of the sheriff’s and police chiefs group, said its members almost unanimously support keeping Washington’s death penalty, arguing it is a useful tool for law enforcement officers and prosecutors to use against accused murders. “Gary Ridgway wouldn’t have admitted everything he has done without the death penalty,” Barker said. Ridgway, known as the Green River killer, is serving life in prison for 49 murder convictions.

Carlyle, Walsh, Orwall and Magendanz argued that imposing the death penalty is prohibitively expensive, and they also pointed to the chance of erroneously sending an innocent person to Death Row. Carlyle said that only the richer counties in the state can afford the legal costs associated with seeking the death penalty — making death sentences significantly dependent on where the murders occurred. Carlyle and Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, another death penalty opponent, estimated that two current murder cases with death sentences under consideration in King County will cost $12 to $15 million to finish.

“If the death penalty was not an option in these two cases, these cases would have been resolved years ago,” Burgess said. He said that his $15 million estimate would translate to 30 additional King County law enforcement officers for five years, or to pre-school programs for about 1,300 kids.

Criminal justice professor Pete Collins of Seattle University was part of a study that concluded a prosecution request for the death penalty adds an average cost of $880,000 to $1.5 million to a trial, depending on the methodology used in calculating the added costs. And 75 percent of those death sentences are eventually converted to prison time, he said.

A King County defense attorney, Katie Ross, noted that 340 people have been convicted of aggravated murders in Washington since 1981.Thirty-three of those cases resulted in death sentences. Twenty of those death sentences were appealed, with the death penalty removed in 19 of those cases.

Nine people are currently on Washington’s Death Row. A year ago, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions that will last until he leaves office.

“To me, it is a little like playing God when we sentence people to death,” Rep. Walsh said. She said it is more appropriate for the convicts to “sit and rot in jail for the rest of their lives.” Walsh said. Rep. Magendanz said: “Is it appropriate for government to take a life? I don’t trust the government with that power.”

Retired police officer Al O’Brien of Seattle said: “The death penalty is not a deterrent. The only thing the death penalty exists for is as a method of vengeance for the state.”

Orwall and Shankar Narayan of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed to Ridgway’s life sentence for 49 murders to question how anyone else could receive a death sentence for one murder in the same state.

Several people who had family members murdered that the death penalty does not provide emotional closure. Instead, they said, each hearing and appeal dredges up bad memories. One of them, former legislator Debbie Regala of Tacoma, said: “More than anything, we want that family member back. But that’ll never happen.”

Judiciary committee members Reps. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, challenged the death penalty opponents at the hearing. Pointing to five current death penalty cases on trial in Washington, Klippert said those deaths are the worst crimes ever to the friends and families of the victims.

“I don’t buy the argument about costs,” Rodne said. Defense attorneys deliberately increase death penalty costs to make prosecutors leery of pursuing executions, Rodne said. He also wants to limit the appeals available in death sentence cases, saying some are “frivolous.”

Ross pointed to the 19 successful death sentence appeals out of 20 attempts: “By definition, frivolous appeals are unsuccessful appeals. These are not frivolous appeals.”

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