Washington followed 19 other states to end capital punishment last week as the death penalty experiences a nationwide decline in use. The state Supreme Court unanimously struck down capital punishment last Thursday as unconstitutional, racially biased, and arbitrary.
Washington’s eight prisoners currently on death row will have their sentences commuted to life in prison with no parole, The Seattle Times reported.
“The death penalty is unequally applied,” wrote Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst in the lead opinion. She said the law lacked “fundamental fairness” and cited a string of variables, including the location of the crime, available budgetary resources, and the defendant’s race and county of residence. Amnesty International has argued that poverty also contributes to the unfairness of death sentences because most capital defendants cannot afford an attorney, and court-appointed lawyers are often overworked and underpaid.
Nationwide, the death penalty is dying even if laws allowing it remain on the books in most states. It “is becoming a creature of the Deep South and the Southwest,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told the Seattle Times.
Only five people have been put to death in Washington state over the past few decades, and death sentences are down 85 percent since the 1990s, Dunham said. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions. And nationwide this year, states have executed 18 people.
Yet as executions dwindle, 2,743 people sit on death row, with California’s 740 topping the charts. In that state, defendants are three times more likely to receive the death penalty if their victims were white than if they were African-American, according to DPIC.
Racial disparity in sentencing particularly affects African-Americans, who make up 40 percent of the prison population despite representing only 13 percent of U.S. residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. About 42 percent of death row inmates are African-American, DPIC reported, and minorities account for 58 percent of inmates awaiting execution, reports the Death Penalty Information Center.
“When faced with the fact that over half of the people on death row are minorities and I consider our country’s history of lynching innocent people who look like me, I can’t help but applaud the Washington state decision to rescind the death penalty,” Christian writer Phillip Holmes, who is African-American, told me. “One innocent life taken by our government is one too many.”
Dan Van Ness, executive director of Prison Fellowship’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation, wrote that the Bible’s “most compelling arguments against capital punishment are the examples of capital criminals who were not executed, such as Cain, Moses, and David.” His summary of different Scriptural positions on the death penalty, while helpful, underscores how difficult it is to apply such laws fairly.
The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling followed the legislative failure of a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state earlier this year.
“While I believe the death penalty should be used rarely, the heinous offenses committed by those on our state’s death row are evidence that capital punishment is still the best fit for some crimes,” Republican state Sen. Mike Padden said in response to the court’s ruling last week.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he will ask the legislature to remove the death penalty law entirely during its upcoming session. And Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who in 2014 ordered a moratorium on executions, has pledged to sign the bill, ending the law’s “costly and capricious sentencing program of capital punishment.”