Wash. Supreme Court strikes down death penalty as arbitrary, racially biased

Olympia, Wash., Oct 12, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The use of the death penalty is arbitrary, racially biased and unconstitutional, the Washington state Supreme Court has said in a unanimous decision barring its use.

The ruling was issued Oct. 11 and makes the state one of twenty to halt the use of death penalty. The result was welcomed by Washington’s Catholic bishops.

“We applaud the unanimous state Supreme Court decision issued today finding the death penalty unconstitutional,” Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle said in a statement Thursday.

“The Catholic Church’s consistent belief is that every human life is sacred from conception until natural death – it is this principle that has energized our efforts for decades to abolish the death penalty.”

The court ruling commutes the sentences of eight men currently on death row to life in prison, the Associated Press reports.

A five-judge majority on the Supreme Court said the evidence presented showed that death penalty sentences had been “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” though the justices did not rule that execution is an inherently wrong penalty.

“We are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance,” said the decision, authored by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst. “Our capital punishment law lacks ‘fundamental fairness.’”

Besides the race of the defendant, other arbitrary criteria in the application of the death penalty included factors such as location of the crime, county of residence, and even available budgetary resources.

The decision came in response to the appeal of Allen Eugene Gregory, an African-American man convicted of the 1996 rape, robbery and murder of waitress Geneine Harshfield. Gregory, now 46, was sentenced to death in 2001.

Earlier this year, working through the Washington State Catholic Conference, the bishops provided testimony backing legislation to repeal the death penalty. The bishops cited flaws in the sentencing process across the U.S., including 161 exonerations for people sentenced to death since 1973 and instances where innocent people have been executed.

 

Pope Francis has approved stronger Catholic opposition to the death penalty. On Aug. 2 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a papally-approved revision of a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty.

 

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the section now states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

 

Reasons for the change, the paragraph says, include the increasing effectiveness of detention systems; growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person; and leaving open the possibility of the prisoner’s conversion.

Defense lawyers have argued that Washington state’s worst mass murderers and serial killers had received life sentences instead of the death penalty, highlighting this as proof of arbitrary application of capital punishment.

Other death penalty critics drew on University of Washington sociologists’ findings, the Associated Press reported. While prosecutors are not more likely to seek the death penalty when the defendant is African-American, juries were about four times more likely to favor imposing the death penalty on black defendants.

Four other justices on the court concurred with the majority conclusion in a separate decision saying that other state constitutional factors “compel this result.”

Republican State Sen. Mike Padden had previously voted against death penalty repeal and was critical of the Supreme Court decision. While capital punishment should be rarely used, he said, “I do think it should be an option in the most heinous cases.”

Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, was among the supporters of the decision.

“This decision will save Washington state taxpayers millions of dollars that would otherwise be wasted,” Cox said. “Conservatives in Washington state and across the country increasingly realize the death penalty is a failed government program that does not value life, threatens innocent people, and wastes money.”

The court’s majority decision left open the option for the legislature to enact a “carefully drafted statute” allowing the death penalty but said it cannot create “a system that offends constitutional rights.”

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would propose legislation to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“We should act quickly to remove the death penalty from state law once and for all,” he said in a statement.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told the Associated Press the use of the death penalty is becoming “increasingly geographically isolated” in  southern and southwestern states.

Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, the most of any state. Florida has executed 28 over the same period, followed by Georgia and Oklahoma as the next most common users of capital punishment.

While court decisions, legislative actions or moratoria have halted the death penalty in many states, New Hampshire and Nebraska voters have overturned such decisions by veto or referendum.

 

Editorial Note: This story has been updated with additional content.

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