Washington

Washington

EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty

In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Rebulican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."

With Bipartisan Sponsors, Washington Attorney General, Governor Propose Bill to Abolish State's Death Penalty

With the support of a bipartisan group of state officials and legislators, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (pictured) and Governor Jay Inslee have proposed legislation to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. At a news conference announcing the bill, Ferguson, a Democrat, was joined by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, in calling for abolition. The bill will be sponsored by Republican Senator Mark Miloscia and Democratic Representative Tina Orwall. “Legislatures are acting on this important issue with up-and-down votes,” Ferguson said during the news conference. “And it’s time for Washington, the state Legislature here, to take that vote.” The state's death penalty, he said, "isn’t working anymore. It is time to move on.” Governor Inslee said the evidence about the death penalty "is absolutely clear. ... Death-penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly.” Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014 and issued a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore on December 29, 2016, said, “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.” Washington juries have imposed few death sentence in recent years, and two high-profile murder cases ended in life sentences. In response, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for a voter referendum on the issue. A 2015 Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in the state found that each death penalty prosecution cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case in which the death penalty was not sought. Despite bipartisan support, the future of the abolition bill is uncertain. A 2015 repeal bill, also sponsored by Miloscia, never received a committee hearing.

Washington Governor Issues Reprieve, Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Citing "serious concerns about the use of capital punishment in the state of Washington," Governor Jay Inslee (pictured) granted a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore, whom the state's Department of Corrections had scheduled for execution on January 19, 2017, and urged the state legislature to abolish capital punishment in the state. The December 29, 2016 warrant of reprieve was the first reprieve order issued under a moratorium on executions that the governor announced in 2014. The warrant prevents Washington from executing Elmore unless and until the reprieve is lifted by Inslee or a future governor, but it does not reduce Elmore's sentence. The Governor's office said Inslee spoke with the victim’s family, "who expressed a preference to see Elmore serve life in prison," before issuing the reprieve. The warrant of reprieve reiterates several of the concerns about the death penalty that led Gov. Inslee to impose the moratorium in the first place, including "[u]nequal application across the state, lack of clear deterrent value, high frequency of sentence reversal on appeal, and rising costs." It states:  "The State's two most important responsibilities in addressing criminal justice issues are to protect the public and to ensure equal justice under the law, and I do not believe the use of capital punishment effectively satisfies these responsibilities." In a separate statement to the media, the governor's office said the state's moratorium on executions was based on systemic concerns and "isn’t about individual cases." Because of those concerns, the statement said, "[t]he governor urges the state legislature to end the death penalty once and for all." Nine men are currently on death row in Washington, and the state's last execution was in 2010.

Voters Oust Prosecutors in Outlier Death Penalty Counties, Retain Governors Who Halted Executions

Prosecutors in three counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty were defeated by challengers running on reform platforms, while voters in Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who acted to halt executions. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Democrat Andrew Warren defeated Republican incumbent Mark Ober (pictured, l.). Warren pledged to seek the death penalty less often and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Harris County, Texas, incumbent Devon Anderson (pictured, r.) was defeated by Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran on a platform of broad criminal justice reform and had received support from the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris County leads the nation in executions and is second only to Los Angeles in the number of people on its death row. Ogg had said that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city and our county" and pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg admninistration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Brandon Falls, District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who does not support the death penalty and said he plans to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Hillsborough, Harris, and Jefferson all rank among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death row inmates in the U.S., and were among the 16 most prolific death sentencing counties in the U.S. between 2010-2015. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said. In gubernatorial elections, voters re-elected governors who had halted executions in their states. Washington voters re-elected Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a death penalty moratorium, and Oregon voters gave a full term to Governor Kate Brown, who had extended her predecessor's moratorium and pledged to keep the moratorium in effect if elected. In North Carolina, voters defeated incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had supported efforts to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. 

After Prior Jury's Life Verdict, Washington Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty in "One of the Worst Crimes We've Ever Had"

King County (Washington) Prosecutor Dan Satterberg (pictured) announced that his office will no longer seek the death penalty against Michele Anderson after a jury returned a life sentence for her co-defendant, Joseph McEnroe. McEnroe and Anderson were charged with killing six members of Anderson's family in 2007 in what Satterberg called "one of the worse crimes we've ever had in King County." Satterberg explained his decision in a news conference on July 29, saying, "To proceed with the death penalty against defendant Anderson, in light of the sentence imposed [on] defendant McEnroe, would not be in the interest of justice." Pam Mantle, the mother of one of the victims, said she was relieved by the decision. “It’s been devastating for all of our friends and family,” said Mantle. “We’re all just worn out from the whole thing. It’s almost eight years.“ Less than one week ago, on July 23, after a highly publicized six-month trial, a King County jury sentenced a mentally ill defendant, Christopher Monfort, to a life sentence in the killing of a Seattle police officer. Anderson has spent time in a state mental institution during her pretrial incarceration, portending extensive presentation of mental health evidence if the death penalty was pursued in her case. Seeking the death penalty against Anderson, McEnroe, and Monfort has cost King County taxpayers more than $15 million in defense costs alone. A recent Seattle University study found that cases where the death penalty is sought cost an additional $1 million, on average, compared to non-death penalty cases.

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Bill Introduced to Abolish Washington's Death Penalty

Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.

COSTS: Washington's Death Penalty Is Costing Taxpayers Millions

A Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in Washington found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said, “What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.” (Although Washington's death penalty was reinstated in 1981, the study examined cases from 1997 onwards. Using only cases in the study, the gross bill to taxpayers for the death penalty will be about $120 million. Washington has carried out five executions since reinstatement, implying a cost of $24 million per execution. In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.)

COSTS: Washington State Is Spending Tens of Millions on Death Penalty

Three capital cases in one county have already cost Washington almost $10 million, and have barely begun. For the trial of Christopher Monfort, King County has already spent over $4 million, and it is still in the jury selection phase. Two other capital cases in the county have cost a combined $4.9 million, and the trials have not started. The capital case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, which is believed to be the most expensive case in Washington's history, cost about $12 million and resulted in a sentence of life without parole. In February, Governor Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington, highlighting both the costs and the arbitrariness of the death penalty, noting, "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." Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga said, "It is a complete waste of resources and time. We've had five executions in 40 years. Seventy-five to 80 percent of these cases are reversed."

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