Bipartisan Effort to Abolish Death Penalty Gains Momentum in Washington
With the backing of the state's governor and attorney general, Democratic and Republican sponsors of a bill to repeal Washington's capital-punishment statute have expressed optimism that the state may abolish the death penalty in 2018. In 2017, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, was joined by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, in calling on the legislature to end the state's death penalty. Ferguson, who has said "[t]here is no role for capital punishment in a fair, equitable and humane justice system," is pressing legislators to take up the bill this year. Governor Jay Inslee featured the bill in his January 9, 2018 State of the State address, urging legislators to "leave a legacy that upholds the equal application of justice by passing a bill to end the death penalty in the state of Washington." The bill, now numbered SB 6052, has bipartisan backing: two of its sponsors in each house are Republicans. And Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), the chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, to which the bill has been referred, said "[t]he stars may be aligning now for support of doing away with the death penalty." Both Republican sponsors in the Senate have questioned the value of the death penalty for murder victims' families and stressed that capital punishment runs counter to conservative values. Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-Milton) wrote in a recent op-ed, "many murder victims’ families oppose capital punishment because it’s little more than a long, re-traumatizing process that doesn’t give them the justice that they deserve." He said continuing with the death penalty is unjustifiable given its failure to contribute to public safety, its high cost, and the "ever-present risk of killing an innocent person." Sen. Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) said, "The death penalty isn’t really accomplishing a wonderful relief to [victims'] families." The repeal bill was stalled in 2017 when Senator Mike Padden, the former judiciary committee chairman, refused to hold hearings on the bill. When Democrats gained control of the state senate after the November 2017 elections, Pederson replaced Padden, paving the way for committee action on the bill. “The votes are there,” Attorney General Ferguson said. “I’m reasonably optimistic that this could be the year.” Miloscia said he, too, is “highly optimistic .... I think this is something that people on both sides of the aisle want to get done.” Washington has a similar profile to other states that have recently abolished the death penalty. Its murder rate is significantly below the national average and, as with most of the states that have done away with capital punishment, it has a very low rate of murders of police officers. The high cost of the death penalty is also a factor for legislators. According to a 2015 Seattle University study, each death-penalty prosecution cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case in which the death penalty was not sought. In an email to the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Senator Walsh said "taxpayers foot the multi-million dollar appeals process for the accused and we spend $50,000/year for incarceration. ... A life sentence with no chance of early release saves money and issues the ultimate punishment by denying the convicted their freedom and liberties for life.” Washington has not carried out an execution since 2010, and Governor Inslee—who imposed a moratorium on executions in February 2014—has said he will not allow executions to take place while he is in office.
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Idaho County Considers Leaving State Defense Fund As Way to Deter Capital Prosecutions
To deter future use of the death penalty in their county, the Blaine County, Idaho County Commissioners on January 2 voted to consider withdrawing from the state's Capital Crimes Defense Fund as a way to choke off state funding in capital prosecutions. “This is a way for our county to say we don’t support the death penalty, and that we don’t want the prosecutor seeking it in Blaine County,” said Commissioner Larry Schoen (pictured), who proposed the withdrawal. Two days later, however, the commissioners backtracked after learning that participation in the fund was a prerequisite for the county to be eligible to receive the services of the State Appellate Defender's office in a wide range of non-capital appeals. The commissioners had believed that, by requiring the county to absorb the entire cost of defending death penalty cases, pulling out of the fund would create a disincentive for local prosecutors to seek the death penalty. At a minimum, Schoen said, “the prosecutor would have to certainly be aware that [a capital prosecution] would be an enormous financial burden on the county.” Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, who has not sought the death penalty since assuming office in 2000, strongly opposed the proposal, saying that decisions to seek the death penalty should not be based on cost. “It’s probably the most important, weighty decision that I would make,” he said. “And to think that we would make it on the basis of finances, I think that’s probably what insulted me most, frankly.” After considering a letter from Thomas and reviewing the conditions of Blaine County's agreement with the appellate defender's office—under which the county would lose an estimated $22,000-$25,000 annually in state appellate assistance in non-capital felony cases if it withdrew from the Capital Crimes Defense Fund—the commissioners decided against withdrawing. “My underlying thoughts haven’t changed," Schoen said. “But at this point, there would likely be too many unintended consequences and negative implications involved with not participating.” As a result, he recommended that the county “continue participation in the Capital Crimes Defense Fund, though I hope we can pursue a legislative solution to decouple that from access to the state’s public defenders.” A 2014 study of death-penalty costs in Idaho by the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations found that the State Appellate Public Defenders office spent 44 times more billable hours on the average death-penalty appeal than on cases in which a life sentence had been imposed. The study also concluded that, on average, capital trials took seven more months to reach a conclusion than non-capital cases. More than half of the 40 people sentenced to death in Idaho since 1977 have had their death sentences overturned on appeal and then received lesser sentences. In November, the commissioners in Ada County—the state’s largest county and the county that most aggressively seeks the death penalty—voted to leave the fund to reduce payments for capital defense services. The commissioners reconsidered that decision after realizing that withdrawal from the fund would make the county responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in appellate costs for non-capital cases.
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Murder Victims’ Family Members Speak of Moving Forward, Without the Death Penalty
Family members of murder victims share no single, uniform response to the death penalty, but two recent publications illustrate that a growing number of these families are now advocating against capital punishment. In From Death Into Life, a feature article in the January 8, 2018 print edition of the Jesuit magazine America, Lisa Murtha profiles the stories of how several prominent victim-advocates against the death penalty came to hold those views. And in a recently released compilation of essays, Not in Our Name, nine family members of murder victims share their stories of coping, grieving, and reconciliation in the face of losing a loved one to murder, and tell how their experiences transformed their views about capital punishment. “While each has endured the extreme pain of losing a loved one to murder, they all are staunchly opposed to what they say is more violence in the form of a state-sanctioned execution and a death penalty,” said Ron Steiner, leader of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which released the essays in November. The death penalty is often characterized as providing justice and closure for family members of the victims. But, Murtha writes, "for many, the death penalty provides neither the closure nor the healing that legal and political systems oftentimes promise. Instead, a growing number of victims’ families are saying it inhibits that healing." Murtha reports on the different reasons offered by five different victims’ families who spoke out against the death penalty in 2016. "One learned how profoundly the murderer had changed in prison, another just wanted the appeals to stop and another discovered that the men originally convicted of the crime were actually innocent," she writes. Murtha also recounts the emotional journeys of Bob Curley, Marietta Jaeger Lane, and Bill Pelke, who are now vocal opponents of the death penalty. After his 10-year-old son Jeffrey was murdered, Curley launched a years-long crusade to reinstate capital punishment in Massachusetts, believing the death penalty might prevent something like this from happening [again].” He came to oppose the death penalty after seeing that the man he believed was less culpable for the death of his son received a harsher sentence and became convinced that "the system is just not fair" and could not be trusted to reach the right result in capital cases. Lane, a lifelong practicing Catholic, said she initially wanted to kill the man who abducted and murdered her 7-year old daughter, but she said, "I surrendered [and] did the only thing I could do, which was [give] God permission to change my heart.” Pelke's 78-year-old grandmother was robbed and murdered by group of teenage girls, and 15-year-old Paula Cooper was sentenced to death. Pelke was convinced his grandmother "would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and that she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion. I learned the most important lesson of my life .... I didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.”
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Conservative Voices Continue to Call for End of Death Penalty
From October 2016 to October 2017, support for capital punishment among those identifying themselves as Republicans fell by ten percetage points. Two op-eds published towards the end of the year illustrate the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty. Writing in The Seattle Times on December 27, Republican State Senator Mark Miloscia (pictured, l.) called for bipartisan efforts to repeal Washington's death-penalty statute. In a December 13 commentary in the Washington Times, conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie (pictured, r.) describes what he calls the "stunning" surge in Republican sponsorship of bills to end capital punishment. Setting forth moral and practical reasons for his support of Washington Senate Bill 5354, Miloscia writes that "[i]t is time to pass a strong, bipartisan repeal of the death penalty." Miloscia cites his Catholic pro-life beliefs as the primary reason for his opposition to capital punishment and highlights Pope Francis' calls for an end to the death penalty. He writes, "Given our modern prison system and ability to neutralize individuals as threats without killing them, it is never imperative to execute someone." But beyond religious beliefs alone, Miloscia sees "many practical reasons why conservatives of all faiths are rethinking the death penalty." Among them, he cites the high cost of capital punishment and the "ever-present risk of killing an innocent person," which he says are "even more unjustifiable" given the absence of any valid evidence that executions affect murder rates. Further, he writes, "many murder victims’ families oppose capital punishment because it’s little more than a long, re-traumatizing process that doesn’t give them the justice that they deserve." Miloscia sees a major shift underway in Republican thinking on the issue, paving a path for bipartisan repeal: "Republicans are turning against the death penalty, which means that opposition to capital punishment is no longer a partisan stance. As the death penalty slowly loses its supporting constituency, the punishment’s future becomes doubtful." Conservative leader Richard Viguerie also sees a dramatic change in how conservatives view the death penalty. Viguerie cites a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which found a surge in Republican sponsorship of death-penalty abolition bills that Viguerie says "has been gaining momentum." As part of this "massive shift," he writes, one-third of all sponsors of death-penalty repeal bills in 2016 were Republicans. Viguerie writes, "conservatives are recognizing that capital punishment is a broken government program that runs counter to conservatism’s foundational tenets of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government." He, too, points to religion, and Catholicism in particular, as a reason for conservative opposition, but says that the Tea Party movement—with its support of limited government—and the election of younger legislators who are statistically more likely to oppose the death penalty, has contributed to the change. He foresees a continuing decline in conservative support for the death penalty: "As state legislatures undergo their makeovers, the public turns against the death penalty, and political leaders voice their capital punishment concerns, we should expect to see even more from Republican officials. Republicans will likely continue to sponsor repeal bills with increasing frequency and reverse the flawed criminal justice policies once advocated by their ideological predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s."
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Retired Lt. General: Exclude Mentally Ill Vets from the Death Penalty
Saying that the death penalty should “be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst in our society,’” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) has urged the Tennessee state legislature to adopt pending legislation that would bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, General Castellaw writes that the death penalty “should not be prescribed for those with severe mental illnesses, including those people with illnesses connected to their military service.” A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service. “[A]s many as 30 percent of the veterans from Vietnam through today’s conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” General Castellaw writes, some of whom have not “receive[d] the care they needed and the care our country promised.” The General tells the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with service-related PTSD and bipolar disorder. Brannan was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in which he had behaved erratically and had begged the officer to shoot him. Despte no prior criminal record and having a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration, Georgia executed Brannan. His final words were, “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them.” In arguing for a mental-illness exemption from the death penalty, General Castellaw writes, “[a]s Americans, we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. As Tennesseans, we can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness.” The Tennessee legislature is expected to consider Senate Bill 378 and House Bill 345 later this year. A similar bill under consideration in Ohio has recently received the support of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. In a January 3 editorial, the newspaper called Ohio Senate Bill 40 “common-sense, bipartisan—and humane.” Under both the Tennessee and Ohio proposals, people who commit murder but are found to have one of five severe mental illnesses would face a maximum sentence of life without parole.
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