Wednesday October 10 was the World Day Against the Death Penalty. One day later big news happened in Washington State USA.
On Thursday October 11, 2018, Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in the way it’s used here. The Court ordered that the sentences of people currently on death row are converted to life in prison.
I learned about this State Supreme Court case (State v. Gregory) in May 2016. We were expecting a decision in November 2016 or soon after.
Allen Eugene Gregory, who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die, had claimed that Washington State’s death penalty – like that of other states – is heavily biased by racial discrimination.
A very little bit of information is at this link: https://aclu-wa.org/cases/state-v-gregory-0
Much more information is at this link: https://aclu-wa.org/news/aclu-urges-wa-supreme-court-strike-down-death-penalty-being-arbitrary-unfair-racially-biased
I heard about this Supreme Court case in May 2016. The Court waited much, much longer than we had expected before reaching its decision. Fortunately, the Court was UNANIMOUS in declaring our state’s death penalty unconstitutional and changing the sentences to the eight persons on death row to be life in prison instead.
Justices said explicitly that the “death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
They seemed to agree with the appellant that the death penalty is unequally applied. Variables affecting death sentences include the county in which the crime occurred or the county of residence, the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, as well as the defendant’s race. The justices also said the death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal. Therefore, it violates Article I, Section 14 of Washington State’s constitution.
See these articles in The Olympian: https://www.theolympian.com/latest-news/article219848715.html and https://www.theolympian.com/latest-news/article219848715.html
See this article in the Seattle Times: The court was unanimous in its order that the eight people currently on death row have their sentences converted to life in prison. Five justices said the “death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
Here is a link to the actual decision by the Washington State Supreme Court: http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/880867.pdf
Now 20 states and the District of Columbia do NOT have the death penalty. We are making progress toward abolishing nationwide!
One day after the Court’s decision, I visited the website of the Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org), and discovered that they have already updated their website to show Washington State as one of the states without the death penalty. See the map and list at this link: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty
One of the issue in Mr. Gregory’s case dealt with “proportionality,” a feature in Washington State’s death penalty law requiring a routine review in every death penalty case to see whether the sentence imposed for that case was consistent with sentences imposed in other cases with similar seriousness and factors in those murders. However, a court decision in a previous case that upheld Washington State’s death penalty law stated that “the dissent believed that “[o]ne could better predict whether the death penalty will be imposed on Washington’s most brutal murderers by flipping a coin than by evaluating the crime and the defendant. Our system of imposing the death penalty defies rationality, and our proportionality review has become an ’empty ritual.'”
A very major part of Mr. Gregory’s case focused on racial bias in Washington State’s death penalty. Crucial evidence was provided by a very through professionally developed research report by Katherine Beckett, Ph.D., and Heather Evans, Ph.D. candidate, titled, “The Role of Race in Washington State Capital Sentencing, 1981-2012 (Jan. 27, 2014). See https://perma.cc/XPS27YTR
The UNANIMOUS decision was 42 pages long. Also, one of the Justices wrote an additional 16 pages of analysis and additional reasons for ruling the law unconstitutional.
On three previous occasions in Washington State’s history, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional for a variety of different reasons, but it has kept coming back. People who oppose the death penalty hope that this judicial decision will stick — partly because public opinion has been shifting away from the death penalty — but we must remain alert and prevent it from coming back.
A number of organizations at national, state and local levels have been organizing to oppose the death penalty.