The Washington state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional Thursday, ruling the state’s 37-year-old capital-punishment law “invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The ruling in the appeal by murderer Allen Gregory means he and seven other men now on death row for aggravated-murder convictions will have their sentences commuted to life in prison without a chance for parole, the Seattle Times reports. Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst said the court concluded that the death penalty violates Washington’s constitutional prohibition on “cruel punishment” and “lacks fundamental fairness.” The opinion cited an analysis of capital-murder cases by University of Washington sociologists that found significant “county-by-county variations” in death sentences, and that black defendants are about four times more likely to get the death penalty than white offenders.
The last inmate to be executed in Washington was Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. “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,” Fairhurst wrote on behalf of five justices. Four other justices agreed, but emphasized that “additional constitutional factors” also undermine the legality of Washington’s death penalty. Washington becomes the 20th state to overturn or abolish death as a legal punishment. Three previous versions of Washington’s death penalty were invalidated by the Supreme Court, but the state revised the punishment each time. Because Thursday’s ruling was based on Washington’s constitution, it cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a death-penalty opponent. Gov. Jay Inslee, who once supported capital punishment but issued a moratorium on executions in 2014, said he expected the ruling to end the debate over capital punishment in the state.