December 18, 2018

Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty

In October 2018, the Washington Supreme Court found that the state’s death penalty is unconstitutional, making Washington the 20th state without capital punishment. The case, State v. Gregory, raised issues of racial bias in the capital punishment system, but the court noted that its decision was also based on the “arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered.” Chief Justice Fairhurst, writing for the court, explained that “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 court also held that the death penalty serves no legitimate penological goal. No justices dissented from the decision, with Justice Johnson filing a concurrence joined by two others to provide even more reasons why he would find the death penalty unconstitutional. As a result of this decision, all eight men currently on Washington’s death row will have their sentences commuted to life in prison.

[T]he 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.

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst

Washington Supreme Court

Following the court’s decision, Governor Jay Inslee said that he would veto any bill that attempted to reinstate the death penalty by amending the statute and will propose legislation that would formally remove the death penalty from state law.

Several other states have grappled with the question of death penalty abolition this year. In New Hampshire, the governor vetoed an abolition bill that made it to his desk, and in Utah and Louisiana, bills failed to gain the necessary support to move forward. 30 states, plus the federal government and the U.S. Military, currently have the death penalty, although only eight states carried out executions in 2018.