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In bipartisan trend, Washington state advances bill to abolish death penalty

"It’s ironic that what used to be one of the most divisive issues is bringing people together," said one capital punishment expert.
Jay Inslee
Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at the Capitol in Olympia to announce that he and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, right of Inslee, have proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.Ted S. Warren / AP

With the mark from Ash Wednesday services on his forehead earlier this month, Republican State Sen. Mark Miloscia's voice wavered as he made an emotional plea to his colleagues — join him and vote to abolish the death penalty in the state of Washington.

"We have been taught, no exceptions, to take care of our brothers and sisters from conception to natural death," he said, citing his Catholic faith. "All people deserve to live, [from] the most innocent among us to the most guilty among us."

Miloscia's religious argument concluded an emotional capital punishment debate on the floor of the Washington Senate that led to five Republicans crossing the aisle and supporting the end of the death penalty in the state. It passed with a 26-22 vote, and was passed to the Statehouse.

Republican members of the Senate who backed the bill cited their religious views, fiscal inefficiencies of the death penalty, the unequal application of the law and the recent rash of exonerations nationwide as reasons for their support.

Recently, many Republicans have decided the death penalty runs afoul of conservative principles, helping bolster a nationwide bipartisan push to end capital punishment — a position typically held by Democrats.

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at the Capitol in Olympia to announce that he and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, right of Inslee, have proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Washington state.Ted S. Warren / AP

"The latest Gallup poll showed a 10 percentage point drop in support among Republicans [for capital punishment] in a space of just one year," said Death Penalty Information Center Director Robert Dunham. "Now there is a significant enough number of Republicans who are openly opposed to it, so that it is no longer possible to say that there is an established Republican position on the death penalty."

The legislation in Washington — where it passed out of the House judicial committee on a partisan vote on Thursday — is the furthest this type of legislation has ever come in the state’s history.

Washington Democrats and Republicans have made a very public effort to pass a bipartisan bill since Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on the state’s use of capital punishment in 2014. Inslee’s Republican opponent for governor in 2012, former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a united display of opposition to death sentences.

Related: Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

"They never came this close before, but what they have achieved is a long-term conversation with legislators that includes Republicans," said McKenna of the lawmakers pushing the legislation. "It's been a thoughtful conversation. This is a hugely personal vote for many."

Lawmakers and advocates on both sides are hoping to get it across the finish line with Republican and Democratic support before the end of the legislative session on March 2. As with the Senate vote, they will need the support of Republicans.

"We’re all in,” said Washington Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty each of the past nine years. “This is at full speed in real time. We are not pulling up the gas pedal one millimeter.”

This bipartisan effort was further buoyed with the support of King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, a Republican, and Bob Ferguson, a Democrat who took over McKenna’s role as Washington attorney general. Ferguson recently made headlines going toe-to-toe with the Trump administration on DACA and over the White House's travel ban.

Republican sponsorship of bills that would end the death penalty have increased significantly over the past five years.Phil McCausland / Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty

But as political divisions grow starker and more entrenched on the federal level, with ongoing fights over immigration and gun control, Ferguson said it is more necessary than ever for state lawmakers — on both sides of the political spectrum — to work across the aisle.

“It’s a low bar for a state to be viewed as more bipartisan than Washington D.C., but I think we are more bipartisan than what I see there,” he said. “This death penalty conversation is part of that development.”

Capital punishment has increasingly become an area where Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.

Though abolishing the death penalty was once a position typically held by Democrats, it has increasingly become a position among some members of the GOP as well. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty analyzed sponsorship of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures and found that Republican sponsorship had increased significantly over the past five years. Republican state lawmakers introduced 10 times as many bills to abolish capital punishment in 2016 than 2000.

“With politics so polarized nationally and with cooperation so hard to come by, it’s ironic that what used to be one of the most divisive issues is bringing people together,” said Dunham.

In the U.S., 27 states maintain the death penalty, four have a governor-imposed moratorium and 19 abolished capital punishment.Phil McCausland / NBC News

Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have ended the use of the death penalty. Four states, including Washington, maintain a moratorium. Those states that currently maintain capital punishment tend to be more conservative, though the Nebraska state legislature abolished it in 2015. Nebraska voters reversed that decision via a ballot question in 2016, however.

In Utah — a state with a Republican supermajority, 62-13, in the state legislature — the House Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee passed a bill that would end capital punishment with a 7-4 vote, and it will now go to the floor. Multiple sources tell NBC News that — despite the support of House Speaker Greg Hughes — the measure is unlikely to pass.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, Washington lawmakers remain hopeful that they will be able to pass the legislation — as long as the statehouse votes by March 2.

“Just take the damn vote,” Ferguson said, referring to his state’s representatives. “I get people have reasons to oppose the death penalty or support it and those are personal reasons, but people also deserve to know where their elected officials stand.”