The 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."
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