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Originally published Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 4:52 PM

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Editorial: Restart the conversation on the death penalty

Gov. Jay Inslee’s temporary moratorium on the death penalty should start a public debate about the costs, equity and morality of capital punishment.

Seattle Times Editorial

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GOV. Jay Inslee’s moratorium on the death penalty in Washington state should start a renewed discussion about the costs, the equity and the morality of capital punishment. And Inslee himself should lead it.

His announcement Tuesday is timely. Jonathan Gentry, one of nine death row inmates at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, is nearing the end of his appeals after the state Supreme Court rejected an appeal last month.

It is also timely because reconsideration of the death penalty is growing. Since 2007, six states abolished capital punishment. Governors in Oregon and Colorado, states politically aligned with Washington, have recently issued moratoria similar to Inslee’s.

Of the 32 death sentences imposed in Washington since the death penalty was reinstated in 1981, 18 were overturned on appeal. Nine people remain on death row. Five were executed.

Thankfully, there is no evidence that any were innocent. Prosecutors argue that the death penalty is so painfully expensive because of the exhaustive trial and appeals process. Pretrial costs of two defendants in the 2007 killing of six people in Carnation are nearing $7 million. But that process also ensures that Washington hasn’t killed the wrong person.

Inslee’s moratorium is a step toward starting a civic discussion, but it was only a half step. It does not commute existing death sentences. It does not prevent new death penalty cases from being filed, nor affect pending trials.

And it does not reduce the public cost of the death penalty. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office, which represents the prosecution in four pending federal cases brought by death row inmates, would continue defending the death sentences. As King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said, it will “cause more delay, expense and uncertainty.”

Inslee said he spent months wrestling with the practical and moral implications of this moratorium. But that deliberation produced a moratorium that lasts only as long as he’s in office.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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