Washington State Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty; Says It was Being Imposed In An “Arbitrary & Racially Biased Manner” [Read Judgment]

Washington State Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty; Says It was Being Imposed In An “Arbitrary & Racially Biased Manner” [Read Judgment]

Washington, on Thursday, became the 20th U.S. state to abolish capital punishment when its Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in a unanimous decision.

The Bench declared the punishment invalid “because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner”, and directed all death sentences to be converted to life imprisonment.

“…the use of death penalty is unequally applied—sometimes by where the crime took place, or the country 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 article I, section 14 of out state constitution,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion.

Article I, section 14 of the State Constitution provides, “Excessive bail shall not be required, excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishment inflicted.”

The court, however, left open the possibility that the legislature may enact a carefully drafted statute, one that imposes capital punishment in the state but does not offend constitutional rights.

The court’s decision was rendered in an appeal filed by Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old woman, in 1996. He had challenged the death penalty imposed on him on several grounds, including the contention that his death sentence "is random and arbitrary, and, to the extent it is not, it is impermissibly based on his race and the county of conviction.”

He had also relied on a study by Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans—researchers at the University of Washington— titled “The Role Of Race In Washington State Capital Sentencing”, which supported three conclusions: (1) there is significant county-by-county variation in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty, and a portion of that variation is a function of the size of the black population but does not stem from differences in population density, political orientation, or fiscal capacity of the county,(2) case characteristics as documented in the trial reports explain a small portion of variance in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty, and(3) black defendants were four and a halftimes more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.

To reach its conclusion, the lead opinion afforded great weight to this report’s analysis and conclusions. It then ruled that given the evidence before it and its judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in the state, “we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance.”

It further asserted that the arbitrary and race based imposition of the death penalty cannot withstand the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” 

The court, therefore, ruled, “It is now apparent that Washington’s death penalty is administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. Given the evidence before us, we strike down Washington’s death penalty as unconstitutional under articleI, section 14.”

It, however, refused to reconsider the appellant’s arguments pertaining to the guilt phase of his trial.

Read the Judgment Here