SEATTLE — Declaring that he is "not convinced equal justice is being served" by the death penalty as it is carried out today, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday declared a moratorium on executions.
Inslee did not commute the sentences of the nine prisoners on death row or issue pardons. Instead, he told reporters, if a death penalty case comes to him for action, he will issue a reprieve.
"Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility," Inslee said. "The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the size of the county's budget where the crime occurred."
In the 33 years since Washington — the only state with a working gallows — enacted its current capital punishment laws, 60% of 32 sentenced to die have had their sentences overturned "due to errors," Inslee said. One was set free.
"When the majority of death penalty sentences lead to reversal, the entire system itself must be called into question," Inslee said. He took the controversial step, he said, to start a broader conversation on the issue.
In announcing the moratorium, Inslee trod a fine line on the question of justice versus toughness. He repeatedly cast his decision as "modest" and a "relatively restrictive use of executive authority."
He emphasized that none of the nine offenders on death row would ever walk free. He also underscored their "guilt and the gravity of their crimes" and assured his constituents that they "get no mercy from me."
The governor, a Democrat, also said he used to support capital punishment. But since he began reviewing the state's laws, visiting death row, touring the execution chamber, talking with former heads of the state Department of Corrections and listening to the families of homicide victims, he has changed his mind.
"With my action today, I expect Washington state will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment," he said. "I welcome that, and I'm confident that our citizens will engage in this very important discussion."
When pressed, Inslee acknowledged that the reprieve would last only as long as he is Washington governor, that whoever inhabits the statehouse after he leaves in three years — or seven, if he is reelected — could send the prisoners on death row to the execution chamber.
He noted that prosecutors currently working cases in their home counties could still seek the death penalty for crimes that are being investigated or tried. And he said that he was not pushing for legislation to end the death penalty, although he would sign such a measure if it met his specifications.
"We don't know exactly what will happen," Inslee said. "Prosecutors will have independent decisions. I am hopeful that this causes people to reexamine all of our thinking about this issue and how this system really works. ... I actually hope that is the case."
Currently, 18 states have banned capital punishment. Inslee's action brings to seven the number of states with governor- or court-ordered moratoriums.
In 2011, John Kitzhaber, governor of neighboring Oregon, declared a moratorium in his state. California, where a ban on capital punishment was narrowly defeated in 2012, is home to about a quarter of the more than 3,000 inmates on death row nationwide.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., called Inslee's action "courageous" and said it was part of a national rethinking of the ultimate punishment.
"Around the country, there are fewer executions, fewer death sentences handed down, fewer states with the death penalty. It is being used less and its inadequacies have been exposed," Dieter said, noting that Inslee "puts the bigger questions on the table for the state of Washington."
Reaction to Inslee's announcement was mixed.
King County Prosecuting Atty. Daniel Satterberg, who is based in Seattle, still plans to seek the death penalty in the case of Joseph McEnroe and Michelle Anderson, who are awaiting trial in the Christmas Eve 2007 killing of six members of Anderson's family.
Satterberg said that, in the short term, the governor's decision "is likely to cause more delay, expense and uncertainty." A moratorium alone will not resolve the problems of cost and injustice raised by the governor, Satterberg said in a statement.
"Let's have an informed public debate," he said, "and let the citizens of Washington decide if we should keep capital punishment in our state."
But state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, the assistant majority whip who has introduced legislation to ban the death penalty in the Evergreen State, called Inslee's action a "bold step."
"We're incredibly proud of his willingness to step up to lead a public conversation about a profoundly serious issue," said Carlyle, a Democrat who represents parts of Seattle.
A death penalty case is more expensive than sending a convict to prison for life, in part because of the lengthy appeals process, but "the deeper moral issue is driven by a growing sentiment that the death penalty is below us as a civilized society," Carlyle said.