LYMPIA, Wash. -- Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday he was suspending the use of the death penalty in Washington state, announcing a move that he hopes will enable officials to "join a growing national conversation about capital punishment."
The first-term Democrat said he came to the decision after months of review, meetings with family members of victims, prosecutors and law enforcement.
"There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment, there are too many flaws in this system today," Inslee said at a news conference. "There is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system."
Inslee said that the use of the death penalty is inconsistent and unequal. The governor's staff briefed lawmakers about the move on Monday night and Tuesday morning.
Inslee's moratorium, which he says will be in place for as long as he's governor, means that if a death penalty case comes to his desk, he will issue a reprieve, which isn't a pardon and doesn't commute the sentences of those condemned to death. Rather than face capital punishment, death row inmates will simply remain in prison.
"During my term, we will not be executing people," said Inslee. But "nobody is getting out of prison, period."
Last year, Maryland abolished the death penalty, the 18th state to do so and the sixth in the last six years.
In Washington state, legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty have received public hearings in past years, but they've never gained political traction. Inslee, who was elected in 2012, said he would support a permanent ban if a legislatively approved measure made it to his desk.
Lee Peden’s daughter Geniene “Genie” Harshfield was murdered in 1996. Allen Eugene Gregory was convicted and sentenced to death twice in the case. Peden says she doesn’t believe Inslee has the right to make this decision.
“The death penalty was voted on and approved by voters in Washington,” said Peden. She also calls the decision “a slap in the face of the constitution.”
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle who has introduced death penalty abolition bills the past several years, said that the moratorium provides a "profound shift" on the momentum for possible future permanent bans.
"He has opened a legitimate conversation that gives the Legislature the ability to not only bring legislation forward in the coming years, but to step up and engage the public in that conversation," he said.
There have been 78 inmates, all men, put to death in Washington state since 1904.
Nine men currently await execution at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The state Supreme Court just last month rejected a petition for release from death row inmate Jonathan Lee Gentry, sentenced for the murder of a 12-year-old girl in 1988. Gentry could have been the first execution in the state since September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman. A federal stay had recently been lifted in Gentry's case, and a remaining state stay on his execution was expected to be lifted this month.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said he thought Inslee's move was "out of touch."
He noted that lawmakers have previously rejected opportunities to pass such measures over the years, "because the public and Legislature support keeping that tool."
Inslee's action follows a recent decision by the state Department of Corrections, which is changing its protocol to allow witnesses to executions to see the entire process, including the insertion of intravenous catheters during a lethal injection.
The new witness protocol, in its final stages of approval, includes the use of television monitors to show the inmate entering the death chamber and being strapped down, as well as the insertion of the IVs, which had both previously been blocked from public view.
Through public disclosure requests, The Associated Press had sought information about any potential changes to the execution protocols. State corrections officials spoke with the AP about the new procedures late last month.
The change is in response to a 2012 federal appeals court ruling that said all parts of an execution must be fully open to public witnesses. That ruling was sparked by a case brought by The AP and other news organizations who challenged Idaho's policy to block the insertion of IV catheters from public view, in spite of a 2002 ruling from the same court that said every aspect of an execution should be open to witnesses.