Washington's governor has unilaterally imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in his state, saying Tuesday there are "too many doubts" and "too many flaws" raised about its application.
In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said he is suspending executions while he is in office, meaning he will issue reprieves when any capital cases come to his desk for action. He said his decision comes after a months-long internal review that included input from law enforcement and families of murder victims.
Inslee concluded the death penalty was inconsistently applied.
"Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served," the first-term Democratic governor said. "The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred."
The governor's executive action will not definitively end future use of capital punishment in Washington -- that would take action from the legislature or voters -- nor will death row sentences automatically be commuted or pardons issued.
Nine murderers, all men, remain on Washington's death row, at Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Five men have been executed since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed the practice to resume. Two of the condemned inmates died by hanging, in 1993 and 1994. The last execution in the state was in 2010, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Lethal injection remains the primary method, but a shortage of drugs nationwide has led other states to seek new pharmaceutical sources and methods, or effectively postpone executions.
Inslee said his action had nothing to do with mercy.
"Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men on death row in Walla Walla," he said. "I don't question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me. This action does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender. But I do not believe their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system."
State law gives Inslee the authority to stop death warrants from being issued.
Civil rights groups applauded the move.
"This announcement marks an important step forward for Washington, and is a victory for the African-American community. Nowhere are disparities between black and white inmates in criminal justice more apparent than in sentences deciding who lives and who dies," said Gerald Hankerson, the president of the Alaska, Oregon, and Washington State Area Conference of the NAACP. "African-American residents are disproportionately represented on death row, and our state is more likely to impose the death penalty on African-American defendants than white defendants convicted of the same crime."
Eighteen states have officially banned capital punishment as a matter of law, including the District of Columbia. Seven others have had a moratorium imposed either by the courts or the governor.
Among them was Oregon in 2011. "It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach. I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor," said John Kitzhaber, a Democrat. Both of Oregon's executions since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976 happened during Kitzhaber's first administration as governor, from 1995-2003.