House committee weighs bill to abolish death penalty

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OLYMPIA — Families of murder victims and opponents of capital punishment testified Wednesday in support of a measure to abolish the death penalty in Washington, saying that the costly and drawn out appeals process only prolongs the pain of the crime.

More than a dozen people spoke before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of House Bill 1739, which would replace capital punishment with life in prison, with no opportunity for parole. The measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, would also require those convicted to work in prison in order to pay restitution to victims’ families.

Former Sen. Debbie Regala, whose brother-in-law was murdered in 1980 and whose killer was never caught, said that she knows that families have differing opinions on the death penalty.

“I do think that all of them would agree with me that we would like the perpetrator caught and prevented from killing another person. Of course more than anything what we would like is to have that family member back, but we know nothing makes that happen,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.

Regala, who sponsored previous bills to abolish the death penalty while in the Legislature, said that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and is not good state policy. She said she believes life in prison is.

“It provides public safety, it lowers the cost to taxpayers, and it can ensure swift certain equal justice that we should all be concerned with,” she said.

The measure comes following Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision last year to impose a moratorium on capital punishment for as long as he’s in office. Inslee has said he supports the bill. The House committee is scheduled to vote on Thursday.

The death penalty is currently authorized by the federal government and 32 states, including Washington and Pennsylvania, where a moratorium was just issued by the governor last week. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty, with Maryland being the most recent.

The niece of an 88-year-old World War II veteran who police said was beaten to death in Spokane in 2013 said she was glad the case was not eligible for the death penalty due to the accused teens’ ages. One was sentenced this month to 20 years in prison for the death of Delbert Belton; the other is scheduled for trial.

“Because there will be no long drawn out of process of appeals, our family is already in the healing process,” said Tyana Kelley, of Spokane. “If we were forced to go through years or decades of hearings, trials and appeals it would just reopen this wound again and again.”

The only person to testify against the bill was Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“Our prosecutors use the death penalty very, very judiciously,” he said. “This is not done arbitrarily.”

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has not taken a position on the bill because its members are split on the issue, said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the association.

A recent study from Seattle University that found death penalty cases in the state cost $1 million more than similar Washington cases where capital punishment is not sought. Rep. Jay Rodne, a Republican from Snoqualmie who is a member of the committee, stated during the hearing he didn’t find the cost argument compelling, saying that the state could just streamline the appeals process if money is a driving issue. He said earlier this week that he personally believes the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases.

Rodne also asked a bipartisan panel of lawmakers who support the bill whether there’s any scenario in which they believe the death penalty is warranted.

“It concerns me when the state has the ability to take a life, period,” said Rep. Chad Magendanz, a Republican from Issaquah who is a co-sponsor of the bill. “As awful as the crimes are, do we lower ourselves as a government to punish with death? That is a legitimate question to be asking right now.”

Currently, nine men are on death row. Death penalty cases in the state are still being tried and continue to work through the system. Inslee’s moratorium means that if a death-penalty case comes to his desk, he will issue a reprieve, which means the inmate would stay in prison rather than face execution.