The state of Washington is joining the movement with 19 other states in taking a stand against the death penalty. As of Oct. 11, the Washington State Supreme Court deemed the death penalty to be unconstitutional and has commuted the lethal punishments of the eight inmates currently on death row to life sentences.
“It’s a unanimous decision,” Deborah Ahrens, a professor of law at Seattle University, said. “In other words, all nine justices say that under the Washington State Constitution the death penalty is unconstitutional.”
There were two major studies that influenced the Washington State Supreme Court to come to this conclusion, one of which was done by a group Seattle U professors. In 2015, this group of professors— consisting of Peter Collins, Robert Boruchowitz, Matthew Hickman, and Mark Larrañaga—researched “The Economic Costs of Seeking the Death Penalty.”
This study found that it costs approximately one million dollars more to conduct a case that is pursuing the death penalty—when the prosecutor is not pursuing the death penalty, the case costs an average of $2.01 million dollars, as compared to the average of death penalty cases being $3.07 million.
Seattle U law professor Robert Boruchowitz was one of the authors of this study and spoke to the information gained.
“In understanding the impact of the death penalty on the justice system and on society as a whole, it was a great opportunity to combine [the] experience of death penalty qualified lawyers…with that of experienced criminal justice researchers… to research the cost questions,” Boruchowitz said.
Alexes Harris, a University of Washington sociology professor, performed a study ‘Into the Racial Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System’ which influenced the court’s decision. Harris found that in 2010, 2,656 African Americans were arrested in King County, compared to just 500 Caucasians. Given that African Americans only account for 3.36 percent of Washington State’s population, compared to 76.77 percent being caucasian, this number is even further out of proportion.
“African Americans make up 13 percent [of the population] of the United States and 42 percent of the death row population,” said Michael Russo, a criminal law and evidence professor at Seattle U. “Race pervades the system.”
He went on to mention that in Washington state alone, African Americans are four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death row compared to their caucasian counterparts.
Washington has not executed a death row inmate for eight years. Governor Jay Inslee stated on his official website that in the years following 1981, during which the state’s previous death penalty guidelines were implemented, there have been 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of these, only 13 were actually executed. Inconsistencies involved in death penalty cases led Governor Inslee to put a halt, or “moratorium,” on death row executions in 2014 until more research—such as the two recent studies mentioned—could be conducted.
“If we now say that it is a problem under our State Constitution, in sincerity, I am not sure how you would redraft our capital punishment statute to ensure equality of outcomes along racial lines,” Ahers said.
The particular case that influenced the Washington State Supreme Court to deem the death penalty unconstitutional was the 1996 case of Allen Eugene Gregory. As an African American male, Gregory argued that he was more likely to receive the death penalty, especially considering that he murdered a white female.
A study in Louisiana found that African American males who were accused of killing white females were 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if they had killed another African American man. This line of reasoning may be applied to other cases, such as Gregory’s, which has now been commuted to a life sentence.
“The Washington Supreme Court now has potentially opened up these opportunities for people to go and say that there are all these other things that race plays into that are not the death penalty,” said Aleksandrea Johnson, a second-year law student at Seattle U and co-president of the school’s chapter of Gideon’s Army.
Johnson also acknowledged another reason behind the decision to deem the death penalty. She commented on the arbitrary nature in which it is applied deems the death penality unconstitutional.
“There are only three counties left in the state of Washington that use the death penalty,” Ahers said. “So really, whether or not you receive the death penalty is based largely on geography… as opposed to how serious your offense is.”
On a federal supreme court level, there was a general consensus that there would be no immediate action regarding the death penalty.
“I think that the real change comes from us,” Johnson said. “It comes from the people coming together and saying that this is how our system is working and that is not what we want… We need to address what the problems are without just incarcerating people. I think that’s what… the next steps are for change.”
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