The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision on Oct. 11 that the death penalty is “invalid” and “unconstitutional.”

The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision on Oct. 11 that the death penalty is “invalid” and “unconstitutional.”

State Supreme Court strikes down death penalty

All nine justices found the use of capital punishment in Washington state unconstitutional and racially biased.

The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision on Oct. 11 that the death penalty is “invalid” and “unconstitutional” due to racial bias in its application — effectively banning capital punishment in the state.

Specifically, all nine justices argued that while the death penalty itself isn’t unconstitutional, its usage is unconstitutional because it is “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” They cited an extensive 2014 University of Washington study on racial bias in cases resulting in capital punishment in Washington, noting that from 1981 to 2014, black defendants were between 3.5 and 4.6 times more likely to receive a death sentence than non-black defendants in similar cases. Since 1904, 78 defendants on death row have been executed in Washington.

“Given the evidence before this court and our judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in this state, we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion. “We hold that Washington’s death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

The ruling stems from the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man who was convicted of raping, robbing, and killing a 43-year-old woman back in 1996. In 2001, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury. However, he and his attorneys appealed the decision, and the case eventually landed before the state Supreme Court.

In their ruling, the court also converted the death sentences of Gregory and the seven other inmates on death row to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said at a press conference Oct. 11 at the state capitol that since the ruling was within the legal framework of the state constitution, it cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the ruling is not a permanent ban on capital punishment. The justices wrote that the death penalty is not innately unconstitutional, and that the state Legislature could draft a “carefully crafted statute” to reimpose a different version capital punishment — so long as it is a system that won’t offend “constitutional rights.”

In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on capital punishment, sparing the lives of inmates who were sitting on death row. Four years later, during the 2018 legislative session, Inslee, along with Ferguson and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, supported legislation that would have banned the death penalty statewide. However, while the bill passed the state Senate, it failed to move out of the House and was never enacted into law.

Inslee called the ruling a “hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”

“This is a full and final decision by the state Supreme Court and, absent legislative action, there will be no capital punishment in the state of Washington,” Inslee said at the Oct. 11 press conference. He added that he doesn’t think lawmakers can craft a version of capital punishment that won’t violate the court’s ruling, and said that potential effort to reimpose the death penalty would be a “grand waste of time” and that he would veto it.

Gregory’s attorneys Neil Fox and Lila Silverstein also lauded the decision. “By striking down the 1981 death penalty statute, Washington now joins the overwhelming majority of the world’s democracies in its respect for human life,” Fox wrote in a statement. Silverstein added, “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. The Supreme Court properly ruled the Washington Constitution does not tolerate such an unfair system.”

American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson, who also participated in Gregory’s case, said in a statement that the court “showed courage in refusing to allow racism to infect life and death decisions.”

He added: “Let’s hope that courage is contagious.”

Across the country, 20 states have eliminated the death penalty altogether.

More in News

The city of Redmond has been referred to as the Bicycle Capital of the Northwest for over the last 40 years. Jake Berg/staff photo
Washington’s new safe passing law for bikes

Under new law, motorists must give at least three feet of space to cyclists using the roadway.

Jake Berg/staff photo 
                                The main trailhead for Smith Woods park.
Redmond neighborhood at risk of losing walkable access to Smith Woods

Residents are reaching out to the city of Redmond for other access options.

Aneelah Afzali, executive director of MAPS-AMEN and creator of Facts Over Fear campaign, hugs an event attendee before a recent presentation. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kwong
National Facts Over Fear campiagn launches in Redmond

Facts Over Fear campaign is intended to dispute misconceptions spread by anti-Muslim hate groups.

The language of the original bill prohibited privately-owned detainment facilities from being contracted by local, state, or federal government entities, but a last-second amendment was adopted to substantially narrow the focus of the legislation. File photo
Lawmakers flinch on banning for-profit detention facilities

Last minute amendment exempted ICE detainment facility.

A proposal to make King County Metro fares free for low-income households could be approved in the coming months. File photo
King County considers free transit for low-income residents

The program would target those at or below 80 percent of the federal poverty level.

Federal Way resident Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, 17, died Jan. 27, 2017. Courtesy photo
Law enforcement challenges report on sting operation that killed Federal Way teen

King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s findings rattle Sheriff’s Office, police union.

Unstable housing? Apply for Section 8

Applications open in February for housing vouchers

In 2018, the city of Seattle approved and then repealed a head tax within a month. It would have levied a $275 per employee tax on businesses grossing more than $20 million annually. Sound Publishing file photo
County head tax bill passes committee

Bill would let King County levy a tax on businesses to fund housing and address homelessness.

Most Read