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State Supreme Court ruling makes Washington the 20th state to stop capital punishment

The state's death penalty system, repeatedly revised since the 1970s, left black people roughly four times more likely to get a death sentence than similar white defendants.

Twenty U.S. states now prohibit capital punishment. CREDIT: Mike Simons/Getty Images
Twenty U.S. states now prohibit capital punishment. CREDIT: Mike Simons/Getty Images

Cal Coburn Brown, killed by lethal injection in September 2010, will be the last person ever executed by the state of Washington after the Supreme Court there permanently ended capital punishment in a ruling Thursday.

The same body had struck down prior versions of the state’s death penalty statutes multiple times in earlier decades, inspiring legislative revamps each time. But Thursday’s ruling prohibits the state government from ever reviving capital punishment in any form, finding the practice violates the state’s constitution because of vast and consistent racial disparities in its application.

“It is now apparent that Washington’s death penalty is administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote in a unanimous decision. That conclusion comes from a statistical analysis of 33 years of capital cases in the state, which has been repeatedly challenged, defended, and refined over the past four years. University of Washington scholars Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans first reported their findings in early 2014, revising them but landing at the same conclusions over the next few years as the court granted the state’s request to challenge their work.

After all that back-and-forth, Beckett and Evans’ primary takeaway was the same: Black people convicted of capital crimes got sentenced to death 3.5 to 4.6 times as often as white people convicted in comparable cases. The researchers also proved that the racial disparities in Washington juries’ decisions about who deserved retributive killing and who merited leniency operated independently of differences in the political makeup, population density, or relative wealth of the counties from which juries were drawn. They found that counties where black people make up a large (for Washington) share of the population were also the likeliest to see death sentences sought and imposed.

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The state had repeatedly raised objections to Beckett and Evans’ methodology and conclusions. The court therefore afforded the government a chance to formally challenge and re-analyze the pair’s work. By the time their project had been pecked over in this manner, the court came away convinced the finished product offered even stronger evidence and more rigorous proof of bias. There is at most a one-in-nine chance that the correlations the duo identified are just random chance, the court noted in Thursday’s ruling.

The court converted the death sentences for 9 people currently on death row to life without parole, the other option for sentencing juries under the state’s aggravated murder law.

Washington becomes the 20th state without a death penalty of any kind, and the eighth to overturn an earlier capital statute through either legislative or judicial action since the turn of the century. Any potential effort to amend the state constitution to create a new basis for rekindling Washington’s death penalty would require a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature and ratification by a majority of voters on the next general election ballot.