Wash­ing­ton state abol­ishes death penalty, calling it ‘racially bi­ased’

Lodi News-Sentinel - - NATION/WORLD - By Jaweed Kaleem

In a strongly worded de­ci­sion that faulted the state’s use of the death penalty as “ar­bi­trary” and “racially bi­ased,” the Wash­ing­ton state Supreme Court on Thurs­day abol­ished cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

The 5-4 rul­ing, which makes the state the lat­est in a grow­ing num­ber to out­law the death penalty ei­ther through leg­is­la­tion or the courts, ef­fec­tively makes per­ma­nent a fouryear mora­to­rium on the death penalty in Wash­ing­ton. The court said that eight peo­ple on death row must have their sen­tences con­verted to life in prison.

“We hold that Wash­ing­ton’s death penalty is un­con­sti­tu­tional, as ad­min­is­tered, be­cause it is im­posed in an ar­bi­trary and racially bi­ased man­ner,” the jus­tices wrote. “Given the man­ner in which it is im­posed, the death penalty also fails to serve any le­git­i­mate peno­log­i­cal goals.”

Gov. Jay Inslee hailed the de­ci­sion and de­scribed it as a “hugely im­por­tant mo­ment in our pur­suit for equal and fair ap­pli­ca­tion of jus­tice.” The Demo­cratic gover­nor, who im­posed the mora­to­rium af­ter ini­tially sup­port­ing the death penalty, said ex­e­cut­ing pris­on­ers “serves no crim­i­nal jus­tice goal.”

While the death penalty has been le­gal in the U.S. since the Supreme Court re­in­stated it in 1976 and a ma­jor­ity of states still al­low it, sup­port for it — and the use of ex­e­cu­tions — have hit all-time lows in re­cent years. About 54 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port the death penalty for mur­der con­vic­tions, down from 78 per­cent in the mid-1990s, ac­cord­ing to a Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey re­leased this year.

Twenty states and the Dis­trict of Columbia now out­law cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Eight of those made the move this cen­tury.

“This is a ma­jor de­ci­sion in Wash­ing­ton,” said Robert Dun­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter. The Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based cen­ter, which is crit­i­cal of the death penalty, tracks ex­e­cu­tions and pol­icy na­tion­ally.

“Even though there was a mora­to­rium in Wash­ing­ton, it did not mean that peo­ple could not still get a death sen­tence or that the mora­to­rium would never be lifted,” he said. This de­ci­sion makes per­ma­nent what was tem­po­rary.”

Wash­ing­ton state law al­lows the death penalty via lethal in­jec­tion or, if an in­mate opts for it, hang­ing. The last state ex­e­cu­tion was in 2010.

The num­ber of an­nual ex­e­cu­tions in the U.S. hit a high of 98 in 1999. Last year, there were 23. On top of the state-by-state out­law­ing of the pun­ish­ment, sup­port­ers of the death penalty have faced sev­eral other hur­dles in places where it’s le­gal.

In ad­di­tion to Inslee in Wash­ing­ton, gov­er­nors in Ore­gon and Colorado have im­posed mora­to­ri­ums on the death penalty while they are in of­fice. In re­cent years, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies have also gone to bat­tle in court with states to block them from us­ing their drugs in lethal in­jec­tions.

Last year, the state of Arkansas at­tempted to ex­e­cute eight men in 11 days be­fore its lethal drugs ex­pired amid con­flicts with drug sup­pli­ers. Texas, Ok­la­homa and Ne­vada have also come into con­flict with drug­mak­ers or the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion over lethal drugs.

“Essen­tially, we are see­ing the grad­ual ero­sion of the death penalty one state at a time,” said Dun­ham.

Ne­braska has bucked the trend. Vot­ers in the state passed a bal­lot ini­tia­tive rein­tro­duc­ing the death penalty a year af­ter law­mak­ers abol­ished it in 2015. In Au­gust, the state be­came the first to use the opi­oid fen­tanyl for an ex­e­cu­tion when it put to death a 60-year-old man con­victed of two mur­ders in 1979.

The case in Wash­ing­ton was brought by Allen Eu­gene Gre­gory, who faced death for first-de­gree mur­der in the rape and killing of a 43-year-old woman, Geneine Harsh­field, in 1996.

The in­mate’s lawyers pre­sented jus­tices with a com­mis­sioned re­port on how race plays into “the im­po­si­tion of the death penalty.”

Gre­gory, 46, is black. Of the seven other death row in­mates, five are white and two are black.

WALLY SKALIJ/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Wash­ing­ton State has abol­ished the death penalty.

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