Washington Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on February 11 that he would issue a reprieve for any death penalty case that reaches his desk. He said he does not intend to commute the sentences of the nine men on the state's death row, but his action will ensure that no executions occur while he is governor. In his press conference announcing the decision, Inslee said, "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. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." He also cited the death penalty's lack of deterrent effect and said that it is unnecessary when the state has the sentencing option of life without parole. His decision to institute a moratorium came after discussions with victims' family members, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials. The governor said he hoped his action will prompt a deeper discussion of capital punishment in the state.

RESOURCES: Recent Legislative Acitivity on the Death Penalty

DPIC is collecting information on pending legislation related to the death penalty.  For example, at least nine states will consider bills to repeal the death penalty in 2012.  In California, a coalition called Taxpayers for Justice has been collecting signatures to place a death penalty repeal initiative on the ballot in November.  On January 25, the Washington Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Debbie Regala, cited high costs as a reason for the bill: “We can keep the public safe with putting people in prison for the rest of their life, as opposed to the costly expense of executing them… It's always important and valuable for us to look at public policy and see if it's actually getting us the results that we want. When you're facing an economic crisis, you add an extra lens." Other states considering repeal bills are Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. A few states, such as New Hampshire, have blls to expand the death penalty.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

NEW VOICES: "Death Penalty - Costly for Families of Victims Too"

Karil Klingbeil, whose sister was murdered 30 years ago in Washington, recently wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times regarding the emotional and psychological impact that seeking the death penalty can have on victims’ family members and friends.  Klingbeil, a former director of social work at Harborview Medical Center, was initially in favor of the death penalty for her sister’s killer, Mitchell Rupe.  Over the years, however, she came to oppose it in favor of life in prison without parole.  She wrote, “Victims' families, like our family, relive the horror of their loved one's murder with every court proceeding. Our system cannot seek this ultimate punishment without a great deal of procedure to avoid and correct errors, and still errors are made. The more hearings and trials there are, the more emotional trauma there is for the surviving family members.”  Klingbeil said she supports repealing the death penalty, calling it "a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society."  She concluded,  "It does constitute a cruel and unusual punishment at odds with our culture and way of life in the United States. We should be putting the money we spend on the death penalty on the front end of crime and apply it toward prevention."  Read full op-ed below.

COSTS: Capital Trials Put Strain on Struggling County's Budget; Prosecutors Laid Off

In Washington, King County has spent $656,564 to prosecute three capital defendants in two cases and over $4.3 million to defend the accused. The trials have yet to begin, but money has been needed for expert witnesses, investigators, and forensic analysis. Prosecution costs do not include work done by police officers and crime-lab analysts. The county has struggled with constraints on its criminal justice budget and has eliminated the jobs of 36 prosecutors since 2008. A third case prosecuted last year has thus far cost the county another $2.4 million.  Other counties with similar budgetary concerns have chosen not to seek the death penalty. Defense attorney Jeff Ellis said that the high cost of the death penalty may be partly responsible for the drop in death penalty cases in other areas. He said, "There is a downturn in the number of death-penalty sentences being sought and imposed because of the costs associated with them. What's happening now [in King County] is a reverse of what's happening nationwide." According to a 2006 study released by the Washington State Bar Association, a death penalty trial costs approximately $470,000 more than a murder case in which the death penalty is not sought, and an additional $70,000 in court costs. The study also found that more than $200,000 is spent on average on appeals.

COSTS: One Death Penalty Case Could Drain County's Budget in Washington

As Yakima County, Washington, faces the possibility of its first death penalty trial since 1989, the danger that the high cost of a capital case could drain the county's budget is a deep concern. Harold Delia, Yakima County court administrative consultant questioned the wisdom of seeking the death penalty against a defendant recently charged with murder, “You really have to wonder whether this really makes sense when you look at the cost-benefit analysis," he said. "In Yakima County, we have no reserves left. If we overspend on a death penalty case, money has to come from somewhere."  Taxpayers may spend up to $1 million on the trial proceedings alone.  In Yakima County, the 2005 slayings of a 21-year-old man and his 3-year-old daughter cost more than $2 million in defense costs alone, much of it incurred before the trial began, even though the death penalty ended up being no more than a threat in the case. A study commissioned by the Washington State Bar Association in 2006 estimated that a death penalty case can cost an additional $800,000 when considering additional costs to the prosecution and defense at the trial and the cost of appeals. 

Legislative Activity - Washington

  • The Washington Supreme Court has unanimously adopted higher standards for death penalty attorneys after a 2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer news series revealed that 20% of the defense attorneys who handled capital cases in the state had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. The reforms, enacted by the Court under Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, require Washington judges presiding over death penalty cases to appoint defense attorneys who have been screened by a high court committee, or to offer an acceptable excuse for not doing so during a mandatory hearing.

Exonerated but Never Set Free

 March 31, 2003
By Maureen O'Hagan

Seattle Times
When the state wanted to execute Benjamin Harris, they said he was perfectly sane. When his conviction was overturned, they locked him up for being crazy. And recently, the state considered Harris sane enough to ask him to testify as a prosecution witness in court.

Such is the unusual tale of Benjamin Harris, the only person ever exonerated from Washington's death row.

The catch is he never went free.