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The justices found racial bias in the imposition of capital punishment by juries.
The Washington Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional Thursday, saying the imposition of the sentence in the state has been shown to be both "arbitrary" and "racially biased."
The court found that whether a defendant was sentenced to death depended on where that person lived or in what county the crime was committed (since 2000, prosecutors from only three of Washington’s counties have sought the death penalty). But, in particular, the justices found that race was the key problem, with juries more likely to sentence black defendants to death.
“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,” wrote Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst in an opinion joined by four of her colleagues, while the four other justices signed onto a concurrence.
The lead opinion found that the death penalty in Washington state failed to meet a “fundamental fairness” standard required by the state’s constitution.
With the decision, Washington state becomes the 20th state to outlaw the death penalty. Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014, saying at the time it was clear to him that “use of capital punishment is inconsistent and unequal.”
As of the ruling, there were eight people sentenced to death in the state. Their sentences will now be converted to life in prison.
In their opinion, the justices relied on a University of Washington analysis of sentences from December 1981 through May 2014 that found black defendants were 4.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than non-black defendants.
The decision stems from an appeal by Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted in the 1996 rape and murder of 43-year-old Geneine “Genie” Harshfield. The court rejected overturning Gregory’s conviction.
Inslee applauded the decision. “This is a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice,” he said in a statement.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that during the next legislative session he plans to propose a measure to wipe the death penalty off the state’s statutes, replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Laura Maggi is Managing Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.