The timing of the bill introduction is crucial to its passing, “the stars may be aligning now for support of doing away with the death penalty,” says Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle). Firstly, 2011 political leadership from Governor Jay Inslee, in suspending the death penalty for the time span of his term, has been crucial to setting the tone of arguments surrounding cost efficiency of capital punishment. Secondly, the bill is receiving bipartisan support from activists and legislatures. Lastly, the Washington murder rate is significantly below the national average, a commonplace trend for states actively pursing the abolition of the death penalty.
In 2014 Governor Jay Inslee made the following statement "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served.” His conviction he explains came from research on current cases and discussion with the family members of homicide victims, death penalty prosecutors, and law enforcement. He then toured Walla Walla State Penitentiary to observe the conditions of death row, and the execution chamber that has taken 78 lives. Governor Inslee argues that there have been too many exonerations in the past 30 years — reflecting the inconsistency and “imperfect system” guiding capital punishment.
With advocacy to abolish the death penalty growing across the United States, exonerations increasing in numbers, public opinion dropping in numbers, Governor Jay Inslee, Democrat is not alone in his stance. Leaders are claiming that the bipartisan support for bill SB 6052 is the foundation to the passage and abolition of the death penalty in Washington state. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democrat, and Attorney General Rob McKenna, Republican, have following suit, joining Governor Jay Inslee in proposing the bill SB 6052. To compound this, soon after Republican Senators began to question the value of the death penalty as a criminal justice procedure Senator Mark Milsocia (R-Milton) dedicated an op-ed in the Seattle Times to describe the re-traumatizing process capital trail and executions have on murder victim families. Senator Maureen Walsh (R- Walla Walla) further argues that the death penalty is ineffective in one of its main purposes, providing relief to the victims families. Bipartisan sponsorship for bill SB 6052 is “a sign of changing views on the death penalty,” explained Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
On the ground activism is exemplified by the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle who represents the Catholic Bishops of Washington State in claiming opposition for capital punishment. The stance is rooted in victim wellbeing, “[The Catholic Bishops] have made very clear their deep concern for the families and friends of victims of violent crimes and their commitment to helping them heal.”
Political and activists support for the abolition of the death penalty also hinges on the cost required to try, house, and execute inmates on capital punishment. In Washington states, three capital cases at their starting stages, located in one country have amounted to $10 million in costs Capital trials in particular are costly. A Seattle study, conducted by Peter A. Collins and colleagues, found that compared to non-death penalty trials, an average of $1 million more in taxpayer money was spend on capital trail for aggravated murder cases. Taxpayer money is also unequally distributed across the state. Defense Attorney Mark Larrañaga, explains that death penalty is unequally applied in court, largely depending on the budget of the country where the crime occurred. Taxpayer money could be better spent on rehabilitation, mediation, and re-entry programs, especially considering the decreasing rate of murder in Washington State.
Across Washington, the murder rate is significantly below the national average. In 2016, the Seattle murder rate decreased by 16 percent compared to previous years. When combing the number of murders across cities — Bellevue, Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma — there was a drop of more than 20 percent. Researchers have described the positive relationship between falling murder rates and increased public support to abolish death penalty.
The timing of bill SB 6052 is reflecting a momentous shift in Washingtons politics and ideology surrounding effective criminal justice. Retributive law, the root of capital punishment is being rejected across the United States. Washington State exemplifies this stride, shifting focus to reduction of financial and social expenses associated with the death penalty and to a more just and rehabilitative criminal justice system.
-- Jacqueline Lantsman