Washington

Washington

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."

NEW VOICES: Former State Health Official Warns of More Botched Executions

Dr. Marc Stern, the former assistant secretary of healthcare for the Washington Department of Corrections, recently commented on physician participation in executions in the wake of the botched lethal injections in Oklahoma and Arizona. Dr. Stern resigned rather than cooperate with his state's execution plan. He explained his views, "Although its foundation is in medical science, lethal injection is not a medical procedure: it has no therapeutic value, and it is not taught in medical school. A 'successful' lethal injection would require the training and expertise of a medical professional. Finding and accessing a vein – especially in someone who is older, obese or has abused drugs – can be challenging. Choosing a proper medication dose for a patient, monitoring medication administration and its effects, and making necessary course corrections need the expertise of a professional. But legitimate medical procedures are subject to scientific study, open discussion among peers, training, supervisory oversight and improvements in technique. Lethal injection will never benefit from these safeguards for one critically important reason: it violates medical ethics." He acknowledged that some medical professionals are willing to anonymously participate in the process. "However," Stern wrote, "we will continue to risk botched executions because they are conducted in a scientific vacuum."

Read the op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Former Washington Corrections Officials Support Halting Executions

In an op-ed in the Seattle Times, two former Washington state corrections officials voiced their support of Gov. Jay Inslee's decision to put executions on hold. Dick Morgan (pictured, L), a former Director of Prisons, and Eldon Vail (pictured, R), former Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, wrote about their participation in the state's 5 executions, saying, "We have witnessed visibly shaken staff carry out a questionable law that condones killing inmates who have been captured, locked behind bars and long since ceased being a threat to the public." They agreed with the governor that the death penalty is too costly and applied unfairly, and added, "Ultimately, the death penalty is not about whether a given person deserves to live or die — it's about whether government should be making that call." In an opposing op-ed, former Kitsap County deputy prosecutor Brian Moran highlighted the heinous crimes committed by death row inmates and Washington's use of proportionality review, which he said ensures that death sentences are proportional and fair.

STUDIES: Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants

According to a recent study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. Nicholas Brown, general counsel to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said, "It's positive to see that prosecutors aren't unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment. At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries." The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. Gov. Inslee recently placed a moratorium on executions, citing the unequal application of the death penalty as one of his reasons for halting executions.

COSTS: Death Penalty Cases Can Mean Bankruptcy for Small Counties

Washington Cost Chart
Click to enlarge

County administrators in Washington state say a single death penalty case could cause bankruptcy in their county. Court costs are paid at a county level, meaning a lengthy and expensive death penalty trial can seriously threaten the county's ability to pay for other priorities. Jim Jones, the former president of the Washington County Administrative Association, said several counties told him, “If we had a death penalty case, and had to pay $1 million (in legal costs), we’d go bankrupt.” If the death penalty is not sought, such cases cost a lot less. In the late 1990's, Okanogan County was forced to put a hold on all equipment purchases, including the replacement of worn-out police cars, in order to pay for one death penalty prosecution. Last year, the $1 million cost of a death penalty retrial caused a "budget emergency" in Clallam County. Two months into the process, the prosecutor decided to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence. Washington has a fund to defray "extraordinary criminal justice costs," but counties typically receive only a small fraction of the reimbursement they request. 

EDITORIALS: Washington Paper Backs Governor's Moratorium and Now Supports Repeal

In an editorial supporting Washington Governor Jay Inslee's recently-announced death penalty moratorium, the News Tribune (Tacoma) said its editorial board "has grown increasingly uncomfortable with capital punishment in recent years, and we now share Inslee's feeling that Washington should move beyond it." The paper said the governor's decision "forced a welcome new discussion" of capital punishment. While acknowledging the heinousness of many crimes, the editorial disagreed that killing is the answer: "Opponents of the death penalty, including us, must look the evil square in the face while saying that execution is not a moral prerogative of the state." It highlighted the inconsistencies of the death penalty and its high cost. The editors praised Washington for only using the death penalty rarely, but said, "We don’t think it’s a big leap to go from rare to never." Read the editorial below.

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.

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