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Washington Kills the Death Penalty – Again

On April 19, 2023, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed SB 5087 into law, ending the death penalty in the state. The state’s Supreme Court had already ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 2018 “because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” However, it remained on the books until the new legislation was adopted.

In its 2018 decision, the Washington Supreme Court cited a 2014 study by the University of Washington that found Black defendants were four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants for the same crime. Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote, “To the extent that race distinguishes the cases, it is clearly impermissible and unconstitutional.” See: State v. Gregory, 192 Wash. 2d (2018).

But the state had already abolished the death penalty back in 1913, only to reinstate it in 1919. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated any law that mandated death sentences, but it agreed the next year that new capital punishment laws could pass constitutional muster if not imposed in a discriminatory way. Washington then adopted a new death penalty statute in 1981. It was that law which the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional because it allowed some guilty verdicts to result in a death sentence and others in life imprisonment without parole – for the same crime.

When Washington’s death penalty ended in 2018, it was the last state in which death-row prisoners could choose hanging as a method of execution. Cal Brown was the last of 78 people executed in Washington since 1904, dying by lethal injection in 2010 for a 1991 murder.

In the past few years, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia have also replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment without parole. There are still 27 states with a death sentence.  

Additional source: AP News

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Related legal case

State v. Gregory