Washington State courts can no longer impose the death penalty, due to a state Supreme Court ruling that declared the existing law unconstitutional as applied. Though the 2018 decision in State v. Gregory gives criminal justice reform advocates reason to celebrate, it does not rule out the possibility that capital punishment could be reinstated. This is in fact the third time that Washington's death penalty has been abolished, and it may not be the last. The court left the door open for the Legislature to enact a statute that ensures the death penalty is not "administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner," which was the reason for reversing Allen Gregory's sentence. His lawyers prevailed in their arguments that capital punishment was unequally imposed based on circumstantial factors such as the location of the crime, the defendant's county of residence and, most importantly, the defendant's race.
The Supreme Court justices reviewed a report by University of Washington researchers who examined the correlation between race, county and the death penalty. They found that between the end of 1981 and early 2014, a black defendant was on average 3.5 to 4.6 times more likely to be handed a death sentence than a non-black defendant who committed an equal crime. However, the state legislature has been undaunted by past court decisions striking down the death penalty. Capital punishment in Washington was nullified by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1972 but was put back into place in 1975 through a revised law passed via a state ballot initiative.
The new law was quickly declared unconstitutional as well. Legislators rewrote problematic parts of the law and reenacted the death penalty in 1977. The revised law, too, was found to be unconstitutional. Again, a retooled capital punishment law was reintroduced. There has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington since 2014, declared by Governor Jay Inslee based on his concern that capital punishment was being used in a way inconsistent the state's responsibility of providing equal justice under the law. The court's unanimous Gregory decision applies to defendants in pending court cases as well as inmates already on death row, who will have their sentences commuted to life in prison.
At Peale Law Firm, we are committed to seeking justice and fair outcomes for defendants in the Seattle area and throughout Washington, no matter how serious the accusations leveled against them. To learn more about how we can help with criminal defense, call us at (206) 429-4777 or contact us online.