Death knell for capital punishment? Washington becomes 20th state to ban executions

Death knell for capital punishment? Washington becomes 20th state to ban executions
Washington States Supreme Court Declares Death Penalty Unconstitutional
Washington states Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional and converted to life in prison all pending death sentences in the state.

The courts decision on Thursday was unanimous, with the justices determining that capital punishment is applied in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.

The news is welcome, but not particularly surprising. Back in 2014, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions in the state. Inslee, who was a supporter of capital punishment, had spent a year reviewing Washington’s death penalty and found that the system was full of flaws. “When the ultimate decision is death,” he said in his official statement, “there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.” In the wake of the decision, Inslee released a statement calling the ruling “a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”

Washington state court throws out death penalty, calling it racially biased

The use of the death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence… or the race of the defendant, the court said in its opinion. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution.

The Court ruled on Thursday that the death penalty, as applied, violates its Constitution. As the Seattle Times reports, the court unanimously ordered that the eight people currently on death row have their sentences converted to life in prison, and five of the justices based their decision on the grounds that the death penalty “is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner” and fails to serve “any penological goals.”

With the ruling, 20 states have either abolished or overturned the death penalty, according to the non-profit group Death Penalty Information Center.  Three others have moratoriums on it. 

According to the ACLU, Washington is the 20th state (out of 50, if you recall) to outlaw the death penalty. It joins Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia, in banning the practice.

Washington State Strikes Down Death Penalty, Citing Racial Bias

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, celebrated the ruling in a statement that called it a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.

The ruling followed arguments against the death penalty on behalf of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing 43-year-old Geneine Harshfield in 1996 in Tacoma, Washington.

Washington State Basically Just Abolished Its Death Penalty

The justices said they would not reconsider Gregorys arguments on his guilt, stating that his conviction has already been appealed and affirmed by the court. 

Video: Washington is latest state to end death penalty

FILE – In this Nov. 20, 2008, file photo, the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown with the witness gallery behind glass at right, in Walla Walla, Wash. Washington states Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty violates its Constitution. The ruling Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, makes Washington the latest state to do away with capital punishment. They ordered that people currently on death row have their sentences converted to life in prison. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

8 men occupy death row at the Washington State Penitentiary

Washington's Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state's death penalty Thursday, ruling that it had been used in an arbitrary and racially discriminatory manner.

Washington has had a moratorium on executions since 2014, but the ruling makes it the 20th state to do away with capital punishment by legislative act or court decree. The court converted the sentences of the eight people on Washington's death row to life in prison.

"The death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant," Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion.

Defense lawyers had long challenged the death penalty on those grounds, noting the state's worst mass murderers and serial killers, Green River killer Gary Ridgway among them, had received life terms, not death. In a 5-4 ruling in 2006, the justices rejected an argument from a death row inmate that he shouldn't be executed because Ridgway hadn't been executed.

Video: BREAKING: Washingtons state Supreme Court tosses out death penalty

This time, death penalty critics were armed with more data about how capital punishment works, including a statistical analysis by University of Washington sociologists. Their report showed that although prosecutors were not more likely to seek the execution of black defendants, juries were about four times more likely to sentence black defendants to death.

Video: Inslee reacts to Supreme Court ruling on death penalty

"Now the information is plainly before us," Fairhurst wrote. "To the extent that race distinguishes the cases, it is clearly impermissible and unconstitutional."

Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time supporter of capital punishment, imposed the 2014 moratorium. In a written statement, the Democrat called the ruling "a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice."

"The court makes it perfectly clear that capital punishment in our state has been imposed in an `arbitrary and racially biased manner,' is `unequally applied' and serves no criminal justice goal," Inslee wrote.

The ruling came in the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old woman, in 1996.

His lawyers, Neil Fox and Lila Silverstein, said the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and that it is not applied proportionally, as the state Constitution requires.

"However one feels about the propriety of capital punishment in theory, in practice the death penalty is imposed in an unfair, arbitrary, and racially biased manner," Silverstein said in a written statement. "The Supreme Court properly ruled the Washington Constitution does not tolerate such an unfair system."

Dozens of former state judges took the unusual step of urging the court to use Gregory's case to strike down capital punishment. Among them was former Justice Faith Ireland, who sided with the narrow majority in upholding capital punishment in 2006.

In Thursday's decision, the court did not rule out the possibility that the Legislature could come up with another manner of imposing death sentences.

"We leave open the possibility that the legislature may enact a 'carefully drafted statute' to impose capital punishment in this state, but it cannot create a system that offends constitutional rights," the opinion said.

Washington State Tosses Death Penalty

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would press the Legislature to make the sole punishment for aggravated murder life in prison without release.

The court did not reconsider any of Gregory's arguments pertaining to guilt, noting that his conviction for aggravated first-degree murder "has already been appealed and affirmed by this court."

Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a measure abolishing the death penalty, but it failed to pass in the House.

Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down State Death-Penalty Statute

"There is a profound shift in our state and country that the death penalty is below us as a civil, just and moral society," Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who had been a sponsor of those previous attempts, said in a text message.


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