[12 February 2014] -
The governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, announced on 11 February that no executions would take place in the state while he remained in office, despite the fact that the death penalty was legal there.
Citing “problems that exist in our capital punishment system,” Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said he would issue a reprieve in any death penalty case that crossed his desk, though he would not let any death row prisoners go free. A future governor could reverse this action, he noted, and order an execution to be carried out.
The move makes Washington the latest in a series of states to step away from capital punishment and makes Mr. Inslee the third Democratic governor in recent years to say something similar. Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon announced in 2011 that he would not permit any executions on his watch, and last year Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado issued an indefinite reprieve in the only death penalty case during his tenure.
The death penalty is legal in a majority of states, although 18 states have outlawed it, including six that have done so in the last six years. For governors who oppose the death penalty, refusing to order executions may be an easier way to make a point than to try to reverse a law.
“There are too many flaws in the system,” Mr. Inslee said on Tuesday. He noted that since the state’s current capital punishment laws were enacted in 1981, more than half of the 32 death sentences imposed in Washington had been overturned. “And when the ultimate decision is death, there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”
He added, “With my action today, I expect Washington State will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment.”
Nationwide, both death sentences and executions are down more than 60 percent from peaks in the 1990s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse in Washington, D.C. Questions about lethal injection methods have delayed executions in several states recently. Two methods of execution are legal in Washington: lethal injection and hanging.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that both the dwindling number of executions and the actions by individual states and governors signaled a shift.
“The fact that governors can now stand up and say these things, when they used to get pilloried, is a sign of the changing views on the death penalty,” Mr. Dieter said.
Nine men are on death row in Washington, though the state has executed only one inmate since 2001. Recently a federal court lifted a stay on the execution of Jonathan Lee Gentry, who is on death row for a 1988 murder.
Jay Rodne, the ranking Republican on the Washington House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, criticized Mr. Inslee’s announcement, saying that it came “out of the blue” and that the governor was taking into his own hands a matter that should be left to lawmakers.
“If there is support for abolition of the death penalty in Washington, then let’s have hearings and let’s have a vote,” Mr. Rodne said.
“I think this is cruel to families of the victims,” he added. “Justice should not be, basically, put on hiatus.”
Though Mr. Inslee had previously supported the death penalty, he said, “My responsibilities as governor have led me to re-evaluate that position.” He mentioned the costs that taxpayers incurred in death penalty cases, which can wind through the court system for decades.