By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington state Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday declared a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in his Pacific Northwest state, citing concerns about unequal application of justice in determining who is executed.
"Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility," Inslee, a Democrat, said at press conference announcing the suspension of capital punishment in a state with nine inmates now on death row. "And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served."
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. Maryland last year became the 18th state to abolish executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A number of other states have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment.
But Inslee, in announcing the suspension at the state capital of Olympia, said his decision to impose a moratorium on executions could still be reversed by Washington's next governor. The next election for governor will be held in 2016.
Washington state's current laws allowing capital punishment went into effect in 1981. Since then, 32 inmates were sentenced to die, but 18 of them had their sentences converted to life in prison and one was set free, according to the governor's office.
Washington state Senator Mark Schoesler, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, criticized the moratorium.
"The governor is out of touch with the legislature and the people," Schoesler said in a telephone interview. "If the people and legislature wanted the death penalty to be gone they would have acted."
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, welcomed Inslee's decision.
"It was a courageous act of leadership based on practical considerations of the death penalty's enormous costs and its unfairness," she told reporters. "Who receives the death penalty depends more on geography and economic means more than anything else."
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a Democrat, also applauded the decision. "We have certainly seen evidence that the death penalty has been applied unevenly over the years in many cases of race and social justice," Murray said in a statement.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Diane Craft)