Somewhere between the discussions about public-school funding or the mental health system or business regulations, Washington lawmakers this year likely will be faced with questions about the state’s death penalty. When those questions arise, the Legislature should refer them to the public.
Washington’s current law allowing for those convicted of the most heinous crimes to be sentenced to death was approved by voters in 1981. But the state has not executed a prisoner since 2010, and Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014 issued a moratorium upon executions as long as he is office. That has placed county prosecutors in a difficult position, as a study from Seattle University has estimated that pursuing a death sentence adds about $1 million to the cost of a trial. The price tag for justice is enormous, even if the people have said that the death penalty should be an option in this state.
Since voters affirmed the use of capital punishment 35 years ago, debate about its effectiveness has continued on a national scale. Public opinion has swayed to some degree, and that calls for the Legislature to place the issue before voters again. Last year, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys asked lawmakers to place a referendum about the death penalty before the public, but no such measure made its way onto the ballot.
Clearly, there is much room for debate. Application of the death penalty is rife with moral and philosophical dilemmas, including inequity over how society’s ultimate punishment is carried out. Death penalty laws vary from state to state, and 19 states along with the District of Columbia do not allow such punishment. Four states, including Washington, currently have moratoriums upon executions. There is clear moral justification for this, as the Death Penalty Information Center reports that 156 death-row inmates nationwide since 1973 have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted.
On the other hand, longtime Clark County residents certainly remember the case of Westley Allan Dodd, who kidnapped, molested and murdered three young boys in Vancouver and was executed in 1993. It is difficult to argue that the interests of the public would be served if Dodd were still being housed and fed by the state. It is difficult to argue that justice for his victims and their families would be served if such a monster were still alive.
But those are arguments that the people of Washington should revisit. The death penalty is an issue that speaks to our values as a society and the manner in which we define justice. Such versions of morality can change over time as the public’s emphasis upon different aspects of the issue is altered. Because of that, another vote is warranted, and it should be a vote of the people rather than a decision left to the Legislature. A question so rife with moral implications should be decided by the populace throughout the state and not solely in Olympia.
Meanwhile, we again encourage Inslee to lift his moratorium upon executions. The governor has a legal right to impose a moratorium, but his oath of office states: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the state of Washington …” The death penalty is, indeed, the law in Washington, and the governor has a duty to uphold that law rather than unilaterally ignore it because he disagrees.
Now, because 35 years have passed since they last weighed in, the people should have the opportunity to declare whether or not they also disagree with Washington’s death penalty law.