Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled this month that the application of the death penalty statewide is unconstitutional.
The ruling makes Washington the 20th state to eliminate the death penalty, and it also commutes the sentences of eight men who are currently on death row to life in prison. In the majority ruling, the five members who decided on the death penalty’s demise said that death sentences have been imposed arbitrarily and were “racially biased.”
“Based on a review of the administration of death penalty cases, constitutional flaws have now become obvious,” read the ruling. “Under article I, section 14 of our state constitution, where a system exists permeated with arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays, such a system cannot constitutionally stand. The combination of these flaws in the system support our conclusion that the death penalty is unconstitutional.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the ruling was a long time coming.
“The use of the death penalty in our country has been a failed experiment infected with serious legal errors and racial bias that run contrary to principles of fairness and justice,” said Clarke in a statement. “This historic ruling by the Washington Supreme Court marks a significant development in the fight to end the use of the death penalty in our country. Evidence shows that race plays an especially pernicious role in the administration of the death penalty and that was particularly true in Washington, where Black defendants faced the death penalty at roughly 4.5 times the rate of white defendants.”
Clarke continued, “It is time that we abandon this deeply flawed and inhumane practice that has long had the harshest effects on poor, African-Americans in our country.”
Although the state of Washington hadn’t executed a person since 2010, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a moratorium on all executions in 2014.
The Washington State Supreme Court issued their ruling based on the case of Allen Eugene Gregory. In 1996, Gregory, an African-American man, was convicted of rape and murder. Members of his legal representation argued in court that the death penalty is applied disproportionately to Black people and therefore violates the state constitution.
Gregory is one of the eight people on death row whose sentences were commuted to life in prison.
NAACP Alaska Oregon Washington Conference President Gerald Hankerson wrote a letter-to-the-editor for The Seattle Times. In it, he not only championed the race-based reasons for eliminating the death penalty but also championed thefinancial reasons as well.
“Eliminating the death penalty is not only racially just, it is fiscally sound,” said Hankerson in the letter. “According to the Washington State Bar Association, of 79 death penalty cases (1981 to 2006), 30 resulted in a death sentence, with 19 being reversed on appeal. Costs to prosecution and defense, during the initial trial and on direct appeal, were more than $750,000 more costly than noncapital punishment cases.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 160 people since the 1970s have been sentenced to death and were later exonerated for the crimes they were charged with. Rebecca Brown, director of policy at The Innocence Project, said in a statement that Washington State has eliminated any possibility of putting an innocent person to death.
“In declaring the death penalty unconstitutional, the court cited the disproportionate role of race in capital sentencing,” said Brown. “Indeed, Black defendants in Washington are more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants. We are hopeful that other states will take notice and examine their own systems of capital punishment along similar lines.”
Although capital punishment is still legal in 30 states, executions have been on the decline for the past 20 years. They reached their peak in 1999, when 98 people were executed. There were only 23 executions in 2017. According to Clarke, the goal is to eliminate the death penalty nationwide and in turn leave a part of America’s past behind.
“Abolishing the death penalty now would liberate us from some of the darkest remnants of Jim Crow, white supremacy and lynching that still loom heavy for African-Americans in our country,” Clarke stated.