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Originally published Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Washington executions are few and far between

Of the 1,060 people executed in the U.S. since individual states brought back the death penalty starting in 1973, four were in Washington...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Of the 1,060 people executed in the U.S. since individual states brought back the death penalty starting in 1973, four were in Washington state.

While that number is dwarfed by the 381 executions in Texas since 1974, the 98 in Virginia and the 84 in Oklahoma, it's comparable to the numbers of executions in many of the 38 states that currently allow the death penalty.

Oregon has put two people to death since 1978, Idaho has executed one and Montana has executed three.

California and Nevada, with the most executions in the Western states, have put to death 13 and 12 people, respectively.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the nation's death-penalty laws in Furman v. Georgia, saying the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was being applied randomly, capriciously and so infrequently as to nullify its deterrence value.

Lawmakers rewrote the death statutes following the 1972 ban and re-established capital punishment in 38 states, but death-penalty opponents say they never fully rectified the basic issues of fairness raised in Furman.

In 2004, capital punishment in New York state and Kansas was ruled unconstitutional by those states' supreme courts. Neither state has thus far sought to reinstate the death penalty.

In addition, executions have been suspended in Illinois by a moratorium and in New Jersey by a state Supreme Court temporary injunction, which leaves 34 states currently permitting executions.

A proposed bill in Washington state, introduced this session, is calling for the creation of a study commission to review the state's capital-punishment laws and applications.

Other states have already created, or are seeking to establish, similar review boards to discuss the impact of race, ethnicity, economic status, gender and costs on how the death penalty is applied and when, said Seattle attorney Mark Larranaga, a former president of the Death Penalty Assistance Center.

Some of the momentum for the review could be due to highly publicized DNA exonerations of death-row inmates, death-penalty opponents said.

But the larger movement is fueled by revisiting the constitutional issues of fairness that were raised by the Furman decision, Larranaga said.

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"What we are seeing is a movement that is asking us to look back at the 2 ½ decades that we've had these executions," he said.

"People are saying, 'Let's stop them for a while, review them and see if the state statute has accomplished what it was set out to do,' " he said.

Of the four people executed in Washington, which reinstated the death penalty in 1975, three of them either asked for a death sentence or refused to seek appeals. The last person to be executed in Washington state was James Elledge, 58, in August 2001 for the 1998 strangling and stabbing of Eloise Jane Fitzner, 47, at a Lynnwood church.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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