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Reprieves, Pardons and Commutations in Death Penalty Cases

Washington’s Constitution and several state statutes give the Governor significant powers over the fate of persons sentenced to death in the state.

Article III, Sections 9 and 11 of the Washington Constitution grant the Governor authority to pardon convicted murderers and other criminals "under such regulations and restrictions as may be prescribed by law." Court decisions indicate that unlike some gubernatorial duties, which can be delegated to the lieutenant governor when the Governor has left the state, the Governor’s pardoning power cannot be delegated to any other state official.

Under RCW 10.01.120, the Governor has the authority to commute a death sentence to life in prison at hard labor and, upon a petition from the offender, to pardon the offender. A commutation is generally defined as a lessening of the criminal penalty, whereas a pardon is often defined as the termination of the criminal penalty.

The Governor also has the power to issue a reprieve (also called a stay of execution or a "respite") to temporarily delay the imposition of a death sentence. A reprieve is to be issued "for good cause shown," and as the Governor thinks proper.

In addition to the Governor’s constitutional and statutory authority to issue pardons and commute death sentences, the Legislature has created a Clemency and Pardons Board to make recommendations to the Governor concerning petitions for pardon or clemency.

The board consists of five members appointed by the Governor and subject to confirmation by the state Senate. The board holds regular quarterly meetings, but can call special meetings at other times as deemed appropriate.

Under state law, the board is charged with receiving petitions "from individuals, organizations, and the department (of corrections) for review and commutation of sentences and pardoning of offenders in extraordinary cases…."

After receiving a petition, the board evaluates whether the petitioner’s request merits a hearing. If a hearing is determined to be appropriate, the board will schedule the hearing, at which time it will take testimony from a variety of potential witnesses, including the petitioner, an attorney for the offender, the prosecuting attorney, and family members of the victim and the offender.

After the hearing, the board votes on a recommendation, which is then forwarded to the Governor. The Governor is under no legal obligation to follow the recommendation.

Since at least 1965, no Washington Governor has intervened to overturn a death sentence, and in only one instance was an execution postponed by a Governor’s action.

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