The prosecutor of Washington’s most populous county is calling for the repeal of the state’s death penalty. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg plans to testify Monday in favor of a proposal to replace capital punishment with life without the possibility of parole.
Satterberg has previously called for a statewide referendum on the death penalty, but that idea has not gained traction. So now he’s urging lawmakers to pass a repeal measure this year.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that our criminal justice system would actually be stronger without the death penalty,” Satterberg said.
Satterberg, a Republican, said as a prosecutor he’s struggled to administer the death penalty and has come to believe it’s unnecessary.
“It’s unnecessary for public safety, it’s not a deterrent and frankly we don’t do it very well,” he said.
Satterberg noted that most counties in Washington can’t afford to prosecute a death penalty case. He also doesn’t believe it serves victims well. Instead, Satterberg said mandatory life without the possibility of parole is the best answer in aggravated murder cases.
A bill going before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Monday would eliminate capital punishment in Washington and require that anyone convicted of aggravated first-degree murder be sentenced to life without parole. It was introduced by Republican state Sen. Maureen Walsh at the request of Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson and has several Democratic co-sponsors.
Walsh represents Walla Walla, where the state penitentiary is located. It houses death row and the state’s execution chamber.
In recent years, death penalty repeal bills have gotten a hearing in Olympia, but not a vote. Washington’s current death penalty law was enacted in 1981. Since then, five death row inmates have been executed. The last was Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. He stabbed and strangled 21-year-old Holly Washa in 1991 in King County. Satterberg attended that execution.
In 2014, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions in Washington. In 2016, Inslee issued a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore, who raped and murdered his girlfriend’s 14-year old daughter, Kristy Lynn Ohnstad, in 1995.
Currently, there are eight people on death row in Washington, including Byron Eugene Scherf, who was already serving a life without parole sentence when he strangled to death correctional officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex in 2011.
Satterberg acknowledged a case like Biendl’s makes a “good” argument for keeping the death penalty.
There’s also the case of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who confessed to dozens of murders in exchange for a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Satterberg was chief of staff to then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng who made that deal with Ridgway’s attorneys.
“Yeah, that leverage might be gone if the death penalty is gone,” Satterberg said. “But, again, that’s a unique situation and I don’t think it’s one that is so compelling that we should keep this program.”
County prosecutors in Washington have not taken a position as a group on the repeal of the death penalty. However, they have called on lawmakers to put the issue to voters—something that hasn’t happened since 1975.