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What is Capital Punishment in Washington?

Eight men sit on death row in Washington. None are scheduled to be executed, and it’s possible they never will be.

In 2014, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on executionswhile he is in office. This decree does not change the sentence for the men facing execution, nor is it a pardon. It means only that the men will remain in prison for the rest of their lives. Washington is one of three states with a formal moratorium on capital punishment, joining by Oregon (2011) and  Colorado (2013).

Though Inslee admitted in announcing the moratorium that he had previously supported the death penalty, he said he was not convinced that “equal justice under the law” was being served.

“The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred,” Inslee said in remarks announcing the move.

The moratorium followed by just a few weeks the release of a study by University of Washington professor Katherine Beckett. In “The Role of Race in Washington State Capital Sentencing, 1981-2012,” she determined that juries were three times as likely to return a death sentence for black defendants as white defendants when situations were similar.

Death Penalty Rarely Used

A Democrat, Inslee watched Republican challenger Bill Bryant make this moratorium an election issue. But Inslee still won easily, and Washington’s history of electing Democratic governors suggests the move could become permanent. The state Legislature, however, has not overturned the law and abolished the death penalty outright. Inslee and his attorney general, Bob Ferguson, sought in January 2017 to introduce legislation that would abolish the death penalty, but it has not progressed. In all, 36 states have not carried out an execution for at least five years. Eighteen of those states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have abolished capital punishment.

Inslee invoked the moratorium for the first time in December 2016. Clark Richard Elmore had exhausted all his appeals and was about three weeks away from a scheduled execution.

Cal Coburn Brown was the most recent execution in Washington. Brown died by lethal injection in 2010, for the 1991 rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman from Burien, WA. He was the 78th person executed in the state of Washington. Only five people have been put to death in the state since 1963.

Nationally, the number of executions has dropped dramatically since 1998, when there were 98. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were just 20 executions in 2016, the fewest since 1991. One hundred fifty-nine individuals have been exonerated while on death row nationwide since 1973. One took place in Washington. Benjamin Harris was convicted for a 1984 murder, but the charges were later dismissed after a judge determined his defense was incompetent.

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