Washington Supreme Court tosses out state’s death penalty

Gov. Jay Inslee left addresses a news conference with Attorney General Bob Ferguson following an earlier announcement that Washington’s Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s death penalty Thursday Oct. 11 2018 in Olympia Wash. Washi

Washington has become has become the 20th U.S. state to ban the death penalty, after its Supreme Court ruled the punishment was applied in an "arbitrary and racially biased manner".

Washington has had a moratorium on executions since 2014, but the ruling makes it the 20th state to do away with capital punishment by legislative act or court decree.

The justices ordered that people now on death row have their sentences converted to life in prison.

The news is welcome, but not particularly surprising.

Following the decision, Governor Jay Inslee tweeted he had "long been convinced that the death penalty in the state of Washington does not pass" the test of equal justice.

Following the supreme court ruling, Inslee released a statement calling the ruling a "hugely important moment" in the pursuit of "equal and fair application of justice".

Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said that a key understanding from the Supreme Court's ruling is that the death penalty was unconstitutional because of how it was applied in the state. It joins Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia, in banning the practice.

The state's highest court issued the ruling while handling the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a woman in 1996.

"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", he said.

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Cal Coburn Brown was the last person executed in this state, in 2010.

"The death penalty, as administered by our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal", the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst states. Its eight prisoners on death row are now serving life sentences.

Citing a 2014 report by researchers at the University of Washington, Gregory's attorneys argue that black defendants in Washington are "more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as other defendants".

Of the 30 states in which capital punishment is still legal, there have been no executions in 16 of them since 1976.

Inslee said he would sign a bill that abolished the death penalty if the Legislature sent him one, and veto any attempt by lawmakers to reinstate it.

Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a measure abolishing the death penalty, but the House didn't pass it.

Capital punishment has been on the decline in the United States for several years, but the Administration of Republican President Donald Trump has said it is considering expanding its use for some federal crimes.

"This is terrible", Kathleen O'Bert said after the ruling. "The court recognized that Washington state's death penalty is broken".

The justices said they would not reconsider Gregory's arguments on his guilt, stating that his conviction has already been appealed and affirmed by the court.

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