Washington Becomes the Latest State to Abolish the Death Penalty

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on October 11, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Washington became the latest state to outlaw the death penalty in the Washington Supreme Court ruling of State v Gregory, in furtherance of Governor Jay Inslee's vow in 2014 to never have another execution while he was in office.

The vote was unanimous, with five justices citing that the "death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner." They added, "Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals." The eight individuals currently on death row will have their sentences changed to life in prison. Gregory is one of three African-American men currently on Washington's death row.

Imposing Death Penalty Due to Unconscious Bias of Jurors

In the case that brought this issue before the court, Allen Eugene Gregory was convicted of raping, robbing, and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old woman, in 1996. Gregory's lawyers claimed that the death penalty was arbitrarily applied and that it was not proportional to the crime, which is required by the Washington State Constitution.

Gregory's lawyers claimed that giving the death penalty was racially biased, based on a 2014 study conducted by the University of Washington, where it was found that black defendants in the state were "more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as other defendants." Interestingly, the disproportion didn't stem from prosecutors seeking the death penalty, but rather was due to juries imposing the death penalty. Jurors were not intentionally discriminating, but it appeared to be due to unconscious bias.

Death Penalty Abolished in 20 States

The death penalty is declining in the United States. Twenty states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have declared it unconstitutional, beginning with New Jersey in 2007. Another 11 states haven't administered one in at least the last 10 years. There were 23 executions in the U.S. in 2017, the second lowest since 1991.

The trend appears to be shifting towards abolishing, or at least postponing indefinitely, the death penalty since it was reinstated back in 1976 in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Gregg v Georgia. Since that time, execution of insane defendants, as well as defendants that were 15 or younger when the crime was committed, have been declared unconstitutional. Also aiding in the decline are the pharmaceutical companies forbidding their products to be used in conjunction with the death penalty.

If you or someone you love is facing a death penalty situation, contact a civil rights attorney to see if the death penalty in your state is unconstitutional. In most cases, the underlying guilty decision will not be overturned, but the death sentence could be converted to life in prison.

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