Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that capital punishment is “unconstitutional” and “racially biased”, in a decision that makes Washington the 20th US state where courts or legislatures have overturned or abolished the death penalty.
A five-member majority of the court did not say that executing people who commit heinous crimes is inherently wrong, but said evidence showed that death sentences had been “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner”.
“We are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance,” the majority’s decision said.
In its decision, the court relied heavily on a study by University of Washington researchers that found that jurors are more than four times more likely to impose a death sentence if the defendant is black.
The ruling comes in response to an appeal brought by Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man who was convicted of the rape, robbery and murder of a waitress named Geneine Harshfield in 1996. Mr. Gregory, 46, was sentenced to death in 2001.
After the decision, Gregory’s attorneys, Neil Fox and Lila Silverstein, both issued statements praising the court’s move. Fox said “Washington now joins the overwhelming majority of the world’s democracies in its respect for human life,” while Silverstein said the justices “properly ruled the Washington Constitution does not tolerate such an unfair system.”
The court commuted the sentences of eight men on death row to life imprisonment, while leaving open the possibility that the Legislature may reinstate the death penalty through a “carefully worded statute”. Yet Washington’s governor Jay Inslee said in a news conference that he would veto any bill that attempted to bring back the death penalty or to fix the flaws outlined by the justices.
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