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Washington State Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty

According to the court, "The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."

TCJD/ MEGA / NewscomTCJD/ MEGA / NewscomThe Supreme Court of Washington struck down the state's death penalty law today, ruling that the it violates the state constitution "because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."

"The underlying issues that underpin our holding are rooted in the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered," the court said. "As noted by appellant, the use of 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. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates [...] our state constitution."

The ruling came in the case of Allen Gregory, who was sentenced to death in 2001 for first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree rape. In 2006, the Washington Supreme Court reversed his death sentence due to prosecutor misconduct during closing arguments; it also reversed his rape convictions. At resentencing, a new jury again sentenced Gregory to death. The state dismissed the rape charges and dropped its attempt at a retrial.

Today's ruling relies extensively on a 2014 report by two University of Washington sociologists, the first to comprehensively study the application of the death penalty in Washington. The report found that black defendants were four-and-a-half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.

The report found significant county-by-county variation in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty. The differences were partly a function of each county's black population and could not be explained by differences in population density or political orientation.

"We have been researching this issue for more than five years, and the evidence is clear and compelling that black defendants are far more likely to be sentenced to death than other similarly situated defendants in Washington's capital cases," UW sociology professor Katherine Beckett, one of the study's authors, says in an email. "We are gratified that the Court has recognized the strength of this evidence and the importance of ensuring equality under the law."

In a concurring opinion, Associate Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson noted the increasing concentration of death penalty sentences in a small cluster of counties. Since 1981, despite approximately 300 aggravated murder convictions, prosecutors have sought the death sentence in only about 80 cases. A jury imposed the death penalty in about 30 of those cases. The death sentences were overturned in 19 cases, and only five executions were actually carried out. Thus, Johnson says, whether a defendant is executed largely depends on where he is tried, not the crime he committed.

"Based on a current review of the administration and processing of capital cases in this state, what is proved is obvious," Johnson wrote. "A death sentence has become more randomly and arbitrarily sought and imposed, and fraught with uncertainty and unreliability, and it fails state constitutional examination."

Washington's current governor, Jay Inslee, declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014. The state has not carried out an execution since 2010, and no death sentence has been imposed since 2011. In a statement to the Bellingham Herald, Inslee called the ruling "a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice."

As the Washington Supreme Court noted, this is the fourth time that Washington's death penalty law has been declared unconstitutional. Washington is now the 20th state in the country to outlaw the death penalty, and the third where a supreme court has struck it down on grounds of racial bias.

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Gregory, also applauded the court decision. "Racial bias, conscious or unconscious, plays a role in the death penalty decisions across America, influencing who faces this ultimate punishment, who sits on the jury, what kind of victim impact and mitigation evidence is used, and who is given life or death," said Jeff Robinson, director of the ACLU's Trone Center for Justice. "That disparity can be described by many words—but justice is not one of them. Washington's Supreme Court showed courage in refusing to allow racism to infect life and death decisions. Let's hope that courage is contagious."

Photo Credit: TCJD/ MEGA / Newscom

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  • Eddy||

    Apparently, this is based on the state constitution, which bans "cruel punishments," not "cruel and unusual punishments."

  • Eddy||

    But apparently the say they're applying the same standard of review as with the 8th Amendment - but since they're using the state constitution, I doubt that can be appealed to the U. S. Supremes.

  • Uncle Jay||

    But if you don't have the death penalty, then who will reside on death row?

  • Eddy||

    For people who make cops nervous, there's no death row, just a trip to the grave.

  • Tionico||

    Yep. Equal opportunity, no waiting.

  • Flinch||

    Attitudinally, I don't think the death penalty pendulum will ever stop swinging. One generation wants it, the next seems to move the other way. The last move to reinstate it was largely national in sentiment: people saw life sentences getting turned into a decade with parole and reacted against it. Personally, the amount of safeguards needed to avoid executing the innocent are such a high bar that I oppose the death penalty mainly on financial grounds. It's important to remember you cannot apologize to a dead man. So let life mean life, and maybe hold parole boards liable for the violent offenders whose sentences they effectively overturn in the face of the work of courts and the juries involved.

  • BYODB||


    It's important to remember you cannot apologize to a dead man.

    This was what eventually made me turn against the death penalty. The justice system, as a matter of course, will get things wrong. The death penalty means if you discover that you were wrong in a particular case, there is no remedy possible.

    The Blackstone Ratio I believe is applicable.

  • Agammamon||

    Personally, the amount of safeguards needed to avoid executing the innocent are such a high bar . . .

    Woooooooow.

  • ||

    Yeah - that gave me pause, too. An awful lot of innocent people have been dragged over that "high bar" to the point where my full stop opposition to the death penalty revolves around the folly of trusting the government to be able to tell the innocent from the guilty (which they're not great at).

  • Tionico||

    it should never fall to the government itself to decide who dies and who lives behind bars, or goes free. THAT must always remain with the jury, which SHOULD be fair and impartial.

    MOST cases where the wrong person went down death row to his grave involve lazy or crooked prosecutors, corrupt coppers presenting false or tainted "evidence", "bought" witnesses, lazy or collusive public "defenders", and so forth. The root problem is, when these sorts of corruption are discovered, literally nothing ever happens to the evil perpetrators, whose crimes of perjury and murder under colour of law are ignored.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "Racial bias, conscious or unconscious, plays a role in the death penalty decisions across America, influencing who faces this ultimate punishment, who sits on the jury, what kind of victim impact and mitigation evidence is used, and who is given life or death," said Jeff Robinson, director of the ACLU's Trone Center for Justice. "That disparity can be described by many words—but justice is not one of them. Washington's Supreme Court showed courage in refusing to allow racism to infect life and death decisions. Let's hope that courage is contagious."

    These statements by the ACLU make me wonder if their primary concern with the death penalty isn't that it kills people (who might be innocent), but it's racist.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Racial bias is the Left's Ace of Trumps to get what they have otherwise weak arguments for.

  • SeaBee||

    The suited Jack and the same color Jack outweigh the ace in trump suit--depends on the game.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Are they wrong in opposing a racist government institution?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Are they suggesting that if it were found to not be racist, or the government responded by making it more equitable, that the death penalty would pass muster?

  • Hugh Akston||

    They are suggesting that the way it is currently done is in fact racist and arbitrary. If the WA legislature comes up with a different mechanism for imposing the death penalty, the ALCU and others will have an opportunity to respond to that.

  • Kivlor||

    The problem with this "suggestion" is that it doesn't hold.

    Look at the violent criminality stats by race. It's a wonder that more negroes aren't executed for their crimes.

    I know, I know, that's raycis. Cuz they're individuals, and collectivism or some other strawman that wasn't argued.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    As a former death penalty supporter, the argument that convinced me is that if you get it wrong, the tragedy of that can't be adequately measured.

    I just find it odd that that one makes the primary objection of race. It's a bit like saying the principal problem with the Final Solution is that it focused too much on Jews.

  • Kivlor||

    It would be fine, as long as whites were disproportionately given the sentence.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I know that this will come as a shock to someone who comments on a libertarian blog, but different people have different values, and different priorities as a result.

    Some people believe that racist polices are inherently invalid. Others believe that the state can't assume rights that individuals don't possess. Others believe that killing violates rights regardless of the context. Others believe that murder is wrong because their holy book says so. Others believe that the state gets it wrong way too often to be trusted with the power over life and death. Others believe that the state has no legitimate claim to authority in the first place and thus has no right ti kill people.

    Some of those I find persuasive, others not so much, but personally I don't give a shit what the stated justification is so long as the state stops killing people.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I know that this will come as a shock to someone who comments on a libertarian blog, but different people have different values, and different priorities as a result.

    We would all do well to remember this bit of wisdom.

    Having said that.

    I don't give a shit what the stated justification is so long as the state stops killing people.

    Again, I'm not arguing against the official abolishment of the death penalty, I just wonder if it's possible it hangs around longer than is necessary by creating off-putting arguments against a thing which, in my mind, might do well with a more straightfoward approach.

    For instance, if one (or a group of people) put in place a policy-- whatever that policy is-- and the people who created and maintain the policy are not nominally racist in any measurable fashion, but they're told their policy is racist, they may resist structural changes to that policy because they feel they're being accused of something of which they're innocent.

    That said, when your primary argument is to have equitable outcomes between the races-- policy details aside, it seems you might lose some people when the real issue is... you're probably killing people who are needlessly swept up in the policy, regardless of their DNA. IE, the policy is wrong, no matter the racial disparity in the policy's application.

    It also could be a reason why we occasionally hear arguments like, "Mebbe it's cuz dem negroes are doin' all the killin'".

  • Kivlor||

    Paul, you're trying to be reasonable with an unreasonable person.

    Your argument is actually quite valid. There's no going back from the death penalty once it has been carried out. You can at the least release someone from a life sentence if they are later found innocent. The question then becomes whether it is worth carrying out the sentence at the risk of accidentally sweeping up an innocent person.

    My whole point was that there's really little evidence that this policy is "racist".

  • ||

    My whole point was that there's really little evidence that this policy is "racist".

    That's not true, really.

  • Hugh Akston||

    That's merely evidence that the policy is racist, not that it's "racist", however Kivlor defines that.

  • Kivlor||

    "racially disparate outcomes" =/= racism when there are differences in behavior and biology in the races. Do you think that the fact there's racial disparity in NBA hiring outcomes means that they are racist against whites? Are you retarded?

    As it turns out, negroes are drastically more violent and murderous than whites. They will have a naturally disparate outcome regarding police interactions. They will be viewed more suspect, because they share a trait that is easily identifiable and is correlated MASSIVELY with violent crime, year after year, decade after decade, study after study, even when controlling for factors like income.

    Here

  • Agammamon||

    No they are not - they are, like pretty much everyone who touts 'racial disparity' more concerned that non-whites are affected than that its actually racist. As in, if it weren't non-whites being executed disproportionately the ACLU would not care.

    These are people who consider a racial disparity to be evidence of - and the only evidence needed - of racism.

  • Kivlor||

    These are people who consider a racial disparity to be evidence of - and the only evidence needed - of racism.

    I think the correct phrasing would sound something like "these are people who consider anything that doesn't have a racial disparity where whites are harmed to be evidence of - and the only evidence needed of - racism.

  • Agammamon||

    20 years ago it would have been 'executes innocent people'. Today its definitely 'its racist'.

  • Jerryskids||

    Both arbitrary *and* racially biased? If it's racially biased, it's not arbitrary is it?

  • Hugh Akston||

    Good. One down, 29 more to go.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Are they going to retry him for rape, to ensure he stays in prison forever?

  • NoVaNick||

    Many blue states like Washington put the death penalty on the books in the 1980s and 90s so as not to appear soft on crime, despite their liberal leanings. so abolishing it, while good news, is largely symbolic, considering that states like Texas are still running their well-oiled execution machines and not slowing down. Others like California may keep it, but never actually use it because it is still politically convenient to support the death penalty.

  • BYODB||


    ...considering that states like Texas are still running their well-oiled execution machines and not slowing down.

    Mmmm...not really true though. Admittedly we Texans do still occasionally execute someone, but it only appears to be a 'a lot' of people by comparison to the places that kill no one, ever.

  • Kivlor||

    From the study
    For example, experimental studies show that stereotypes such as the association between blackness and violence are widespread: the mere (visual) presence of a black man increases the likelihood that observers will think about the concepts with which black men are stereotypically associated (e.g. violence)

    The "stereotype" is sadly upheld by the data... blacks are 6x's more likely to murder someone, and 12x's more likely to murder someone of another race than non-blacks. It's even worse if you compare blacks to whites directly...

  • Kivlor||

    The study goes on to indicate that the state is less likely to seek death when victims are black. Interestingly, we can only extrapolate that a black man is more likely to receive this sentence for killing a white man than if he killed another black, however, we have zero data to extrapolate RE: black victim white murderer because in the 30 years this study covered there were exactly zero cases of whites murdering blacks.

    Also, interestingly, the state was 40% less likely to seek death for black defendants than whites...

  • ||

    we can only extrapolate that a black man is more likely to receive this sentence for killing a white man than if he killed another black, however, we have zero data to extrapolate RE: black victim white murderer because in the 30 years this study covered there were exactly zero cases of whites murdering blacks

    Actually, there's a lot of data showing that blacks are much more likely to be sentenced to death for killing whites than vice-versa. The magic formula is "black man kills white woman = death; anyone kills black man = meh."

    Your assertion that there is any 30 year period in which no white person murdered any black person shows willful ignorance to the point of confirmationism.

  • Kivlor||

    I know, reading is difficult, but do try to keep up. If you check the study, they claim that they look at all of the murders in the state, and if you read the study you will find that they had exactly zero cases of whites killing blacks.

    Now, if you want to compare "black man kills white woman = death" with something equivalent, you'll have to compare it to "white man kills black woman" to see what happens. And you'll have to control for sexual crimes in the course of the murder, which are demonstrated to have the strongest influence RE: death penalty.

    Now, thinking on that, exactly how often does a white man rape a black woman? Well, according the the federal studies available, it is zero. Per year. Across the country. On the other hand, negroes rape white women on a regular basis... so the odds in your comparison of there being the issue of alleged rape almost certainly skew the outcome.

    Again, differences in racial behavior will result in differences in policing outcomes. Do you think the raycis police are raycis against whites, in favor of asians in the US? Because policing disparities are pretty strong there too.

  • Rossami||

    I oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle. But I do not agree with this court's reasoning for why they declared it unconstitutional. They appear to me to have lost track of whether this was an as-applied or a facial challenge of the law.

  • Emily3262||

    This court has a history of deciding what they like and then manufacturing weak legal arguments to impose their will on issues that should be decided by the people through their representatives. If the application was racist they could have required changes to make it not racists. What they really don't like is the death penalty. What is dying in Washington State is government by the people. We have an idiot governor, a narcissist socio-path AG, and top-two voting system that guarantees the two party system. Hey Washingtonians - when's the last time you had a chance to vote Green, Libertarian or any other party to hold yours in check? You don't, they left the state. You want to return power to the people then get behind Instant Run Off Voting.

  • tommhan||

    I don't care what color executed criminals are and neither do most Americans.

  • SeaBee||

    Out of curiosity, of the 5 men who were executed since 1980, what was the racial make up?

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