The Next Step in the Washington Death Penalty Debate

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

This month, Washington could become the twentieth state to eliminate the death penalty. Last week, the State Senate passed SB 6052, a bill to reduce criminal prosecution expenses by replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment. The bill has moved to the House and received a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

When I asked Stefanie Anderson, Board Chair of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP) how she reacted to SB 6052’s passage out of the Senate, she said, “I cried. When the vote got to 24 in favor, I knew it would pass. I started to cry. Then, it ticked up to 26 votes, and it passed.”

WCADP began its work in 1986, five years after the current version of Washington’s capital punishment law came into effect. This past fall the coalition co-sponsored a speaking tour with Witness to Innocence—a national organization of exonerated death row survivors dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. Two members, Randal Padgett and Sabrina Butler-Smith, spoke to standing-room-only crowds in Seattle, Ellensburg, and Spokane. Last month WCADP co-sponsored a “Safe and Just Alternatives Lobby Day” with the ACLU of Washington and several other organizations to emphasize.

“As long as there are votes taken in the House, I think it will pass,” said Anderson. “If they bring the bill to the floor, I believe it will pass.”

However, when I asked Anderson what might defeat the bill, she said she thought some of the Democratic leadership might fear a backlash. “They might fear losing Democratic seats for some legislators who would vote for the bill. Leadership could prevent the bill from coming to a vote in the Judiciary Committee or the House floor,” continued Anderson.

“However,” emphasized Anderson, “I think this fear is unfounded. There are examples across the country—I don’t believe anyone who has voted for abolition has lost their seat. In this state, Governor Inslee, who came out against the death penalty, putting the moratorium in place in 2014, won election by a larger margin in 2016 than he did in 2012. There was no backlash.”

Anderson’s assertion that local politicians need not fear a backlash appears to be corroborated by recent national polls indicating more Americans are rethinking capital punishment and how the criminal justice system functions overall. According to a late 2017 Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty dropped by five percent in 2017, and Republicans registered a 10% drop since last year. This year’s 55% support marks the lowest level since 1972.

Another poll, from the Safety and Justice Challenge, reports that public support for criminal justice system reform continues to climb. The shift in public sentiment seems to be away from punishment, including capital punishment, and toward rehabilitation.

Citing this trend, I asked Anderson to describe the primary argument she still encounters in favor of the death penalty.

“Anger—not fear—is the number one reason I hear from people who continue to support the death penalty. Of the people I’ve talked with, the majority say they are angry over the horrible things one human being can do to another human being. They have an emotional response to the terrible things people do,” she said.

In a recent piece in Crosscut, John Carlson argues along these lines, focusing in part of his article on the role of the “intentional infliction of trauma and suffering” in capital sentencing.

Anderson’s stance on the violence of these crimes is different, however. “If they really wanted to break the cycle of violence, though, they would be against the death penalty. Capital punishment keeps the violence ongoing. It just replaces who is doing the violence,” she said.

Finally, I asked Anderson what her organization is doing right now and what they are planning for the future, with the committee hearing scheduled for this coming week.

“There is a team of people working every angle to pass this bill. People continue to speak with their legislators. Others are working to show House leadership there is strong bipartisan support. We are working social media and organizing supporters to attend the House Judiciary Committee,” said Anderson.

The deadline for the bill to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee is Friday, February 23. If the bill moves to the House floor, the deadline for the bill to pass is Friday, March 2.

Featured image Alex Garland