Washington State Supreme Court rules death penalty unconstitutional

The Washington State Supreme Court banned the state’s death penalty on Thursday after deciding that the punishment was racially biased and arbitrary.

The court ruled unanimously that the penalty unconstitutional and converted the state’s eight death-row inmates to life in prison.

“All death sentences are hereby converted to life imprisonment,” the majority ruling said.

Washington bans death penalty

The judges were weighing the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted of murder, rape, and robbery and sentenced to death in 2001. Gregory cited a study in appealing his case that found a connection between county and race and whether a defendant received the death penalty.

It concluded that juries were four times more likely to sentence black defendants to death than white defendants with all other conditions being the same. The judges were led to conclude that the death penalty as it had been applied was unfair and “fails to serve any legitimate penological goal.”

“It is now apparent that Washington’s death penalty is administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” Fairhurst wrote. “Given the evidence before us, we strike down Washington’s death penalty as unconstitutional.”

The court did not rule out the possibility of the state legislature seeking to reimpose the penalty through law in another way that would be constitutional. However, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said they would seek to have the death penalty banned in the legislature next session.

Rarely used punishment

Democratic State Sen. Reuven Carlyle said the repeal marked a “profound shift” away from an uncivilized practice. But Republican Sen. Mike Padden expressed caution.

“The death penalty should be rarely used, but I do think it should be an option in the most heinous cases,” he said.

Even before its repeal this week, the death penalty was rarely administered in the Pacific Northwestern state; the state has executed only five inmates since 1976. Inslee, who issued a moratorium on executions in 2014, praised the ruling.

“Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington,” Inslee said. “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.”

Before the Thursday repeal, Washington had executed 78 people, all men, since 1904. The last execution occurred in 2010. By contrast, Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state, executed 108 prisoners since 2010 alone.

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Some data shows that the number of executions nationwide is on the decline. However, Washington state remains in the minority: the death penalty is still on the books in 30 states.

A recent Pew poll found a majority of Americans support the death penalty for convicted murderers.

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