By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington state Governor Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on Tuesday on carrying out the death penalty in his Pacific Northwest state, citing concerns about unequal application of justice in determining who is executed.
The action marked a victory for opponents of capital punishment who have seen a growing number of U.S. states take steps in recent years to end executions, either by legislation or through suspensions issued by governors or the courts.
"Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility," Inslee, a first-term Democrat, told a news conference announcing the suspension of capital punishment. "And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served."
But Inslee stopped short of commuting to life in prison the sentences of the nine inmates currently on death row in Washington state, leaving open the possibility they could still be executed should a future governor lift the moratorium. The next election for governor will be held in 2016.
Eighteen U.S. states have already legally ended executions, with Maryland last year becoming the sixth state in six years to
abolish capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A number of others have temporary execution bans in place.
Inslee's move was welcomed by civil liberties activists who want to stop all executions even as death penalty proponents argued the governor was out of touch with the majority of Americans who polls have shown continue to support capital punishment.
"It was a courageous act of leadership based on practical considerations of the death penalty's enormous costs and its unfairness," Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said of the decision.
"Who receives the death penalty depends more on geography and economic means more than anything else," she added.
Washington state Senator Mark Schoesler, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, criticized the moratorium.
"If the people and legislature wanted the death penalty to be gone they would have acted," Schoesler said in a telephone interview.
State Representative Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat who has introduced past bills to eliminate the death penalty, said the governor's move would lend momentum to a push to legally outlaw capital punishment in the state, although it was too late in the legislative calendar to pursue such a measure this year.
"Now we have a really genuine breakthrough in the governor being willing to help frame this public dialogue," Carlyle said. "Public sentiment is profoundly shifting."
While a clear majority of Americans - or about 60 percent - support the death penalty for convicted murderers, support for capital punishment nationally has been on the decline, according to a Gallup poll released in October.
The 60 percent figure marks the lowest level of support for the death penalty Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57 percent were in favor. Death penalty support peaked at 80 percent in 1994.
The United States saw 39 inmates sent to the death chamber last year, down from 43 in each of the past two years, with a small number of states such as Texas, Florida and Oklahoma accounting for most executions.
In Washington state, only five inmates have been put to death since 1981, when the state's current laws allowing capital punishment for aggravated murder went into effect. The most recent execution occurred in 2010, said Norah West, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.
Since 1981, one death row inmate in Washington state had a conviction overturned. In that case, a federal judge in 1994 vacated the murder conviction of Benjamin Harris on the grounds that his original trial lawyer was incompetent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Harris was later set free after prosecutors failed to have him confined as insane.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Diane Craft and Bernard Orr)