On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment violates the state constitution. The court held that, as applied in Washington State, the death penalty has been imposed in an unlawfully “arbitrary and racially biased manner.” It thus converted all death sentences to life imprisonment and barred the future imposition of capital sentences. The court’s ruling was unanimous and cannot be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Washington Supreme Court rooted its decision in a provision of the state constitution that bars any “cruel punishment.” For decades, the court has held that this clause provides greater protection than its counterpart in the federal Constitution, the Eighth Amendment. Nevertheless, in 2012, the court upheld the death penalty, noting it had seen “no evidence that racial discrimination pervades the imposition of capital punishment in Washington.” That finding spurred a death row inmate to commission a study by Katherine Beckett, an expert on race and criminal sentencing, to analyze the issue.
Beckett found that capital punishment, as practiced in Washington State, is infected by racism. According to her report, black defendants were 4 ½ times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants. Moreover, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in counties with larger black populations. Beckett’s conclusion was stark: In Washington State, black offenders were at greater risk of execution than white offenders who’d committed an identical crime.
In light of these findings, the court held Thursday that capital punishment is imposed in “an arbitrary and racially biased manner” and “fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.” The problems go beyond race: Most prosecutors in the state have stopped seeking the death penalty, so all current capital sentences arise from just six of Washington’s 39 counties. The location of your crime may therefore determine whether you live or die. This “random” and “capricious” application of the ultimate punishment, the court ruled, fatally undermines any state interest “retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders.”
There are currently eight inmates on Washington’s death row.
The court converted their sentences to life imprisonment and forbade the state from conducting any further executions. Because its ruling is based entirely in the state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court cannot overturn it. And the court left no room for future reconsideration of its unanimous decision. Capital punishment is over in Washington State.