Will Botched Executions Fire Up ‘Back Burner’ Death Penalty Debate?

Yesterday brought another botched execution, with Arizona convicted murderer Joseph Wood gasping and snorting for nearly two hours before dying of lethal injection. That, and at least two other disastrous executions this year, is helping to fuel a revived national debate about the death penalty.

One might expect the debate to be particularly loud in Washington state, given the moratorium on executions announced by Gov. Jay Inslee’s in February. In doing so, the governor said he was hoping to jump-start a statewide conversation that might lead to legislative action.

Has that really happened, though? Dick Morgan, a retired prison warden who is on the board of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, doesn’t think so. Ironically, he says, the governor’s moratorium “took the energy out of the issue.” Because there’s no pending execution, “you don’t have that sense of urgency...It’s a little more difficult to engage the public.”

People also tend to confuse the moratorium with a permanent ban, according to Morgan. “When I talk to my friends and others, they say, ‘Ah, there’s never going to be another execution’. ” And so, it seems to him like the issue has, at least for the time being, been put on the “back burner.”

“I haven’t heard much of a public debate either,” says prominent defense attorney Jim Lobsenz, who is currently representing Dayva Cross, sentenced to die after being convicted of killing his wife and two of her daughters. While executions are on hold, capital cases are still going forward, including that of Cross, whose sentence was upheld by the state Supreme Court last month. “Everything is in this strange limbo land,” Lobsenz says.

It’s not that there are no conversations happening, it’s just that many of them are “behind the scenes,” relates Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington, which is advocating for legislation that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. “I’ve been having some very positive conversations with legislators,” he says.

Inslee’s general counsel, Nick Brown, who was instrumental in helping the governor make up his mind about the death penalty, adds that he’s been giving a number of talks on the subject, including at the Starbucks headquarters and bar association meetings.

If there’s going to be a larger public debate, though, it’s probably going to happen when a legislative bill is pending and actually has a chance of permanently doing away with the death penalty. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, the Seattle Democrat who for six years running has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, none of which have gotten out of committee, says he intends to try again this year and is hopeful that he can “elevate the conversation.” He says wants to do that by really listening to the concerns of skeptics, like prosecutors, and crafting a bill they will find palatable. He couldn’t yet say what such a bill would look like.

Despite Inslee’s jump-start, this may not be the session that such legislation generates much interest. Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, points out that much of the next legislative season will be devoted to the budget and education funding. Brown muses that “this process takes a long time” and suggests that a bill may pick up more steam in coming years.

But then there are those botched executions. Will we have any more? Will they generate a new sense of urgency? “I would say this is one of those tipping point issues,” says the ACLU’s Narayan. “The conversation could change very fast.”

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