Although the Washington Supreme Court ruled in October that Washington’s use of the death penalty was unconstitutional, the court’s action did not completely eliminate capital punishment in the state.
The Legislature still needs to vote this year to repeal the law.
Washington’s death penalty was racially based, arbitrary and lacks fundamental fairness, the justices ruled. Research quoted in the Supreme Court decision found that, in this state, “black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.”
The Supreme Court left open the possibility that the Legislature could fix the death penalty. No current or future Legislature should be permitted to do so.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working with Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, to close the door on the death penalty once and for all. Lawmakers have tried and failed for years to pass similar legislation.
The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime and is unnecessary for public safety. It is not worth the cost to taxpayers or the emotional energy required from victims’ families.
Since Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1981, 33 people have been sentenced to die, although some had their sentences changed on appeal, and five have been executed. Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions in 2014. The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling converted the sentences for the state’s remaining eight death-row inmates to life in prison without release.
In the past 15 years, seven states have ended their death penalties and Washington, Colorado and Oregon adopted moratoriums. Only a few states are still executing prisoners, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma, but nationally death sentences have decreased dramatically.
In Washington, one of the best arguments for eliminating the death penalty is the disproportionate way it has been used, both geographically and racially.
“The death penalty is unequally applied – sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion.
Prosecutors seek the death penalty only in the most populous counties, because those are the municipalities that can afford the cost of trial and death-penalty appeals. Seeking the death penalty adds at least $1 million to the cost of prosecution – money that could be better used toward other law and justice work.
This is the year to eliminate the death penalty in Washington state.