The action marked a victory for opponents of capital punishment
who have seen a growing number of U.S. states take steps in recent
years to end executions, either by legislation or through
suspensions issued by governors or the courts.
"Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility,"
Inslee, a first-term Democrat, told a news conference announcing the
suspension of capital punishment. "And in death penalty cases, I'm
not convinced equal justice is being served."
But Inslee stopped short of commuting to life in prison the
sentences of the nine inmates currently on death row in Washington
state, leaving open the possibility they could still be executed
should a future governor lift the moratorium. The next election for
governor will be held in 2016.
Eighteen U.S. states have already legally ended executions, with
Maryland last year becoming the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty
Information Center. A number of others have temporary execution bans
Inslee's move was welcomed by civil liberties activists who want to
stop all executions even as death penalty proponents argued the
governor was out of touch with the majority of Americans who polls
have shown continue to support capital punishment.
"It was a courageous act of leadership based on practical
considerations of the death penalty's enormous costs and its
unfairness," Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American
Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said of the decision.
"Who receives the death penalty depends more on geography and
economic means more than anything else," she added.
Washington state Senator Mark Schoesler, the leader of the
Republicans in the Senate, criticized the moratorium.
"If the people and legislature wanted the death penalty to be gone
they would have acted," Schoesler said in a telephone interview.
State Representative Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat who has introduced
past bills to eliminate the death penalty, said the governor's move
would lend momentum to a push to legally outlaw capital punishment
in the state, although it was too late in the legislative calendar
to pursue such a measure this year.
[to top of second column]
"Now we have a really genuine breakthrough in the governor being
willing to help frame this public dialogue," Carlyle said. "Public
sentiment is profoundly shifting."
While a clear majority of Americans — or about 60 percent — support
the death penalty for convicted murderers, support for capital
punishment nationally has been on the decline, according to a Gallup
poll released in October.
The 60 percent figure marks the lowest level of support for the
death penalty Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57
percent were in favor. Death penalty support peaked at 80 percent in
The United States saw 39 inmates sent to the death chamber last
year, down from 43 in each of the past two years, with a small
number of states such as Texas, Florida and Oklahoma accounting for
In Washington state, only five inmates have been put to death since
1981, when the state's current laws allowing capital punishment for
aggravated murder went into effect. The most recent execution
occurred in 2010, said Norah West, a spokeswoman for the state
Department of Corrections.
Since 1981, one death row inmate in Washington state had a
conviction overturned. In that case, a federal judge in 1994 vacated
the murder conviction of Benjamin Harris on the grounds that his
original trial lawyer was incompetent, according to the Death
Penalty Information Center. Harris was later set free after
prosecutors failed to have him confined as insane.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia,
writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Cynthia Johnston, Diane Craft and Bernard
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.