Washington legislation formally terminated the death penalty, becoming the 23rd state to abolish the sentence.
The legislative change comes about four and a half years after the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled capital punishment was unconstitutional.
Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5087 on April 20, removing about three dozen sections of state laws that the court had ruled against.
“It’s official,” Inslee tweeted. “The death penalty is no longer in state law.”
The governor cited race-related criminal justice concerns as a contributing factor to the state’s movement to end capital punishment.
“I initiated a moratorium against the death penalty in Washington State in 2014, and our rationale for that decision was affirmed by our (state) Supreme Court decision in 2018, when they invalidated the death penalty statute,” Inslee said during the bill signing, per CNN. “They made clear, and we know this to be true, that the penalty has been applied unequally and in a racially insensitive manner.”
Washington conducted its last execution in 2010. When Inslee enacted his moratorium, nine people were on death row.
“A total of 78 people, all men, were put to death in Washington between 1904 and 2010,” reports AP News.
Ten other states abolished the death penalty in the last two decades. For some, the change marked a moral reckoning and a progressive enhancement of the criminal justice system. For others, the end of capital punishment is a disservice to the victims of serious crimes.
Most recently, Virginia struck down the death penalty in 2021.
“It is a powerful thing to stand in the room where people have been put to death,” said then-Governor Ralph Northam, who signed the bill at the Greensville Correctional Center. “We know that this Commonwealth’s use of capital punishment has been inequitable… We can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing the system does not work the same for everyone.”
Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state in 2020. Polis simultaneously commuted the sentence of three men on death row, a decision that surprised the victims’ families.
“Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” said Polis in a statement as reported by the Colorado Sun. “Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado.”
The New Hampshire legislature overrode a veto from Governor Chris Sununu in 2019 and abolished the death penalty. Sununu expressed his disappointment on Twitter, writing that he has “consistently stood with law enforcement, families of crime victims, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty because it is the right thing to do,” per NPR.
At the time, New Hampshire had just one death row inmate – Michael Addison, who was convicted of fatally shooting an officer on Oct. 16, 2006. The law abolishing capital punishment did not retroactively apply to his case and Addison’s sentence was not commuted.
Washington terminated the death penalty days before jury selection began in Pennsylvania for the trial of the man accused of the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. As part of the screening process conducted by the prosecution and defense, potential jurors have been asked about their willingness to impose the death sentence, per USA Today.
The United States federal government, the military and 27 states still permit the death penalty.
California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are each under a governor-imposed death penalty moratorium but have officially abolished capital punishment.