Washington state court throws out death penalty, calling it racially biased

The execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown in 2008. The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the death penalty violates its Constitution

The Supreme Court of Washington in a Thursday ruling declared the state's capital punishment regime incompatible with its constitution.

"It is now apparent that the death penalty is administered in an arbitrary and biased manner", the court said.

The news is welcome, but not particularly surprising. There are also four states where a governor-imposed moratorium on capital punishment has been put in place.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time supporter of capital punishment, imposed the 2014 moratorium.

Following the supreme court ruling, Inslee released a statement calling the ruling a "hugely important moment" in the pursuit of "equal and fair application of justice".

His lawyers, Neil Fox and Lila Silverstein, said the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and that it is not applied proportionally, as the state Constitution requires. It joins Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia, in banning the practice.

Allen Eugene Gregory, for rape and murder of a 43-year-old woman on July 26, 1996, in Pierce County.

But the Supreme Court rejected that argument and relied on the study in its decision.

"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.

According to the DOC, Washington state has executed 78 people with the last being Cal Coburn Brown in 2010 by lethal injection.

"The death penalty, as administered by our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal", the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst states.

Thirty states and the federal government provide for the imposition of death as a sentence for some homicides.

The alternative, trying to revise the state's death penalty to make it constitutional, is unfeasible, and Inslee said he'd veto it anyway.

Dozens of former state judges took the unusual step of urging the court to use Gregory's case to strike down capital punishment.

Advocates for capital punishment argue it should be available for those who commit the worst crimes.

"This is terrible", Kathleen O'Bert said after the ruling.

The concerns cited in those states have ranged from procedural matters, such as the information provided to sentencing jurors in NY, to worries about executing an innocent person or racial and other disparities in who is sentenced to death, as was the case in Washington. "Next session, I will again propose legislation repealing the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole".

The justices declined to revisit Gregory's conviction for aggravated first-degree murder, saying that it "has already been appealed and affirmed by this court".

Opponents of the death penalty, such as the ACLU, are cheering the decision.

As it stands, 31 U.S. states still have the death penalty, while 19 states do not. Reuven Carlyle, who had been a sponsor of those previous attempts, said in a text message.

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