Washington state’s Supreme Court abolished the death penalty on Thursday on the grounds that it was applied randomly and “in a racially biased manner,” thus violating the state’s constitution. With the decision, Washington is now the 20th U.S. state to ban capital punishment.
The case striking down capital punishment was brought forward by a black death row inmate, Allen Gregory. As ABC News reports, Gregory was sentenced to death for raping and murdering a 43-year-old woman in her home in 1996.
From ABC News:
There is no doubt of Allen’s guilt, or of the horrific brutality of his crime. What the Washington court focused on is what many states have come to see—the death penalty is administered so arbitrarily, and is laced with so much conscious and unconscious racial bias, that it cannot be seen as a just or even lawful act by the state.
Supporting this was an exhaustive University of Washington study that focused on how the death penalty is applied in the state. It was a key piece of evidence for the prosecution.
According to ABC News, the study found black defendants were four and half times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants who had been convicted of similar crimes. The study, which also looked at how prosecutors seek the death penalty, found there was no difference with regard to who they sought the death penalty for.
In fact, the study found that it was the jury that was primarily responsible for the racial gap. Whether consciously or unconsciously, jury bias tilted the scales, making them more inclined to sentence black defendants to death.
Of the eight inmates currently on death row in Washington State, three, including Gregory are black. For perspective, this means black people comprise 37.5 percent of death row inmates, even though black people make up just around 4 percent of Washington’s population, according to the 2010 Census.
Because of the discrepancy, the Supreme Court found capital punishment invalid “because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
“The use of the death penalty is unequally applied—sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” the decision read (pdf).
“The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution.”
According to the Seattle Times, execution was already rare in Washington, especially since Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on executions in 2014. The last time the state executed someone was in 2010.
The eight men currently on death row will have their sentences converted to life in prison without release, writes the Times.
With the decision, Washington has become the eight state in just 11 years to do away with capital punishment. Three more states—Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—have moratoriums on the practice. But as states revise their view of the death penalty, the trend is far from universal.
“The death penalty is becoming increasingly geographically isolated,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told the Times. “It’s still on the books in 30 states, but it’s not being used in 30 states. It’s becoming a creature of the Deep South and the Southwest.”