Law & the Courts

Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down State Death-Penalty Statute

Father Chris Ponnet, participates in a protesting against the death penalty in Anaheim, Calif., February 25, 2017. (Andrew Cullen/Reuters)

Washington state’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state’s death-penalty law violates its constitution, because it is applied unevenly and does not serve any penological goal.

In a unanimous decision with four concurring justices, the nine-justice court ruled that the “death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” and, “Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.”

In striking down the law as a violation of the state constitution, the court ruled the eight people on death row in the state will now have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The case arose from the conviction of Allen Eugene Gregory for raping, robbing, and murdering Geneine Harshfield, 43, in 1996.

Gregory commissioned a study on the relationship between race and county and the death penalty. The investigation found that capital punishment was more likely in some counties than others, and black suspects who were convicted were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to execution than whites who committed similar crimes.

Governor Jay Inslee, who supported the death penalty before deciding in 2014 that no executions would take place during his gubernatorial tenure, called the ruling “a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”

“The court makes it perfectly clear that capital punishment in our state has been imposed in an ‘arbitrary and racially biased manner,’ is ‘unequally applied’ and serves no criminal justice goal,” Inslee wrote.

Washington’s ruling leaves only 30 states with operative death-penalty statutes on the books.

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