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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Washington: Efforts to ban the death penalty fizzle out in Legislature

The execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary.
Not this year.

The death penalty will live on in Washington after the latest effort to abolish the practice came to a screeching halt in the final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Senate bill 6052 marked the most successful attempt in the past five years — and possibly ever — to erase the state’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole.

But it wasn’t enough in the end. The contentious effort fissured party lines with enough opposition from Democrat and Republican lawmakers to sink the bill’s chance of a vote in the House, according to state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma.

“I’m really disappointed, but I’m also excited that we talked with more members than ever before,” Jinkins, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. “I expect that this will be a priority for me to work on should we be in the majority next year.”

Some lawmakers were surprised the effort made it as far as did in a short legislative session — 60 days compared to the 105 of a full session.

Sen. Maureen Walsh, the Republican sponsoring the bill and resident of Walla Walla where the state’s eight current inmates on death row are housed, suggested the Democratic majority in the House might not have wanted to push a divisive bill on a tight schedule.

“This is something that is controversial, and the numbers are so divided that it may not be something that Speaker Chopp would want to fall on his sword on behalf of his caucus members,” Walsh said, referring to state Rep. Frank Chopp, a Democrat from Seattle and speaker of the house.

The issue of abolishing the death penalty transcended partisan ties earlier in the session when Democrat and Republican lawmakers broke rank over SB 6052 in the Senate. A handful of Democrats opposed the bill while five Republicans, including state Sen. Mark Miloscia, a Republican from Federal Way, voted in favor of the measure when it passed the chamber 26-22.

In the House, a similar situation unfolded. Some Democrats were against repealing the death penalty. Some Republicans were in favor of keeping it. But unlike the Senate, there were not enough votes in the end to push the measure through the chamber, according to Jinkins.

Some House Republicans said no formal conversations took place in their caucus on a bill to abolish the death penalty.

State Rep. Jay Rodne, a Republican from Snoqualmie who voted against the bill when it passed through the House Judiciary Committtee, said he believes the death penalty is a necessary punishment for the state’s most egregious offenders.

Rodne alluded to the most recent execution in Washington as an example of a crime befitting of capital punishment. In 2010, Cal Coburn Brown was put to death by lethal injections after he was convicted for the 1991 rape and murder of 21 year-old Holly Washa.

“As a pro-life Catholic, I’ve struggled with this issue considerably,” Rodne said. “But some crimes are so heinous that they cry out for the ultimate punishment, and I think prosecutors should have that option.”

During the Senate vote, some Republican lawmakers proposed an amendment to keep the death penalty as a sentencing option for those found guilty of murdering a law enforcement or correctional officer.

The amendment would have applied to the killer of Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Daniel McCartney, who died last month after being shot while responding to a 911 call. The same goes for people like Maurice Clemmons, who killed four Lakewood police officers in 2009 before being shot to death by a Seattle police officer days later.

Lawmakers critical of the death penalty have long scrutinized the practice as a high-stakes arm of an imperfect justice system that take the lives of innocent people. Data from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty shows more than 150 people nationwide have been exonerated from death row since 1973.

The death penalty also comes with fiscal baggage. Largely due to legal fees in the appeals process, the death penalty costs an average $1 million more per case than life imprisonment in Washington, according to a 2015 Seattle University study of state convictions.

Among these reasons, five states since 2007 have done away with their death penalty — New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland.

Washington’s latest failed attempt comes four years after Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, placed a moratorium on the death penalty, suspending the practice for as long as he’s in office.

Inslee said in an interview Thursday he thinks maybe next year Washington will join that list.

“This will keep coming up until it gets done,” he said. “There’s been a rapid tide moving in this direction, and I think maybe next year we’ll get there.”

Source: The News Tribune, Max Wasserman, March 8 , 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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