Washington Supreme Court outlaws death penalty, citing racial bias

By agency reporter
October 14, 2018

On 11 October 2018 the Washington Supreme Court handed down a decision that outlaws the death penalty, making it the 20th state in the country to reject capital punishment.

In State v. Gregory, the court found that the death penalty violates the constitution because it is arbitrary and discriminatory, especially with regards to race. Black defendants in Washington are more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants. That racial bias, along with geographic and economic bias, is endemic to the death penalty.

Jeff Robinson, deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, had the following response: “The Washington State Supreme Court today declared the state’s scheme of capital punishment unconstitutional on the ground that it is infected with racial bias that influences the decisions about who should live and who should die. There is nothing unique about the role racism played in Washington’s death penalty. What is rare is the Supreme Court’s willingness to call out the truth that has always been there.

“Racial bias, conscious or unconscious, plays a role in the death penalty decisions across America, influencing who faces this ultimate punishment, who sits on the jury, what kind of victim impact and mitigation evidence is used, and who is given life or death. That disparity can be described by many words – but justice is not one of them. 

“Washington’s Supreme Court showed courage in refusing to allow racism to infect life and death decisions.  Let’s hope that courage is contagious.”

In Gregory, 75 former or retired judges, all of whom are intimately familiar with the role of the death penalty in the criminal justice system, joined the ACLU in a friend-of-the-court brief asking the court to recognise the failures of Washington's death penalty. They called on the state high court to strike the death penalty as unfair, unconstitutional, and broken beyond repair. Washington juries have increasingly rejected death verdicts, like juries across the nation, and public support for the death penalty is at near historic lows.

The Washington Supreme Court is the third state supreme court to strike down the death penalty in part on concerns about the inherent racial disparities, joining Massachusetts (decided in 1980) and Connecticut (decided in 2015). Concerns about the unfair application of the death penalty, along with the failure to protect innocent and the high cost of the death penalty, have caused decision makers and the public to increasingly turn from the death penalty. Of the 30 states that retain it, three have official governor moratoriums and several more have de facto moratoriums; 10 states that authorise the death penalty have not had an execution in the last decade. 

Washington state attorneys Lila Silverstein of the Washington Appellate Project and Neil Fox represented Gregory in his appeals to the state supreme court and brought the claims of constitutional error on his behalf.

* American Civil Liberties Union https://www.aclu.org/

[Ekk/6]

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