Washington high court strikes down death penalty

By Mark Berman | Washington Post

The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down the death penalty there as unconstitutional and “racially biased,” a ruling that makes it the latest in a string of states to abandon capital punishment in recent years.

Washington state had already halted any executions under a moratorium put in place by Gov. Jay Inslee, D, in 2014, so the order issued Thursday will not stop already planned executions. But the court’s order, which declares that death sentences in the state should be converted to life in prison, is a sweeping rejection of capital punishment at a time when it is being used less nationwide and as states are struggling to obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections.

In their opinion, the justices focused on what they said was the unequal use of the death penalty, describing it as a punishment meted out haphazardly depending on little more than geography or timing.

“The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote. “While this particular case provides an opportunity to specifically address racial disproportionality, the underlying issues that underpin our holding are rooted in the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered.”

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote the opinion and four justices concurred, one in the result only. Four other justices signed a concurrence saying they agreed with “the majority’s conclusions and its holding invalidating the death penalty” but adding other state constitutional factors they said “compel this result.”

The arguments outlined in Washington have echoes of what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has said in questioning whether the death penalty itself is constitutional. In a 2015 dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Breyer called the death penalty’s use “capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary” and said for those sentenced to death, it was “the equivalent of being struck by lightning.” Breyer echoed that point in 2016 when discussing California’s use of the death penalty, saying it similarly was unreliable, arbitrary and plagued by delays.

The opinion in Washington was issued in a case that has lingered in the criminal justice system for more than two decades, centering on a man convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Geneine Harshfield in July 1996.

Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted and sentenced for Harshfield’s death, is one of eight people on Washington’s death row; five of those people are white and three, like Gregory, are black. Gregory, 46, was first convicted and sentenced in 2001 and then, when his case was overturned, convicted and sentenced again in 2012.

Washington currently has two methods of execution, according to the corrections department: Lethal injection or hanging, if the inmate opts for the latter. The state last carried out an execution in 2010.

Executions nationwide have declined steadily in recent years, with several states or courts doing away with the practice entirely. The Washington ruling makes the state the 20th without the death penalty, according to records kept by the Death Penalty Information …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Politics


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