Thursday's state Supreme Court decision effectively ending the state death penalty does not weaken our justice system. It actually becomes stronger when there's equal justice under law.
In a proud day for Washington, the state Supreme Court affirmed Thursday that the death penalty, as applied, is arbitrary, biased and unconstitutional.
Two of the three branches of state government have taken this important stand, with Gov. Jay Inslee declaring a moratorium on executions in 2014 because the system is flawed and unequally applied. Although the court effectively abolished the death penalty with this decision, the Legislature should still remove it from state law and close the books.
The court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, states that “the use of 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. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution.”
This does not weaken our justice system — it actually becomes stronger when there’s equal justice under the law. Nor does it forgive the worst criminals, including the eight now on death row in Walla Walla, who will still die in prison.
Life sentences without parole also provide more certainty to families of victims. They will no longer be forced to endure the uncertainty of death penalty cases that may extend for 20 years through appeals and often are overturned.
“Today’s decision does not let anyone out of prison,” Inslee said in a news conference with Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “We are now one step further in our pursuit of equal justice for all.”
The death penalty is becoming an anachronism nationally, in part because society has evolved, matured and better understands that it’s a flawed system of punishment. Federal and state courts have narrowed its application, and 19 other states already have abolished capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s tally.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle said the court decision provides “unstoppable” momentum to finally pass legislation eliminating the death penalty from state law.
The alternative, trying to revise the state’s death penalty to make it constitutional, is unfeasible, and Inslee said he’d veto it anyway. Lawmakers tried over decades to make the penalty work, failed repeatedly and produced the arbitrary system that the court eviscerated on Thursday.
Indeed, the constitutional concerns have only deepened in recent years, noted a concurring opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson. “A death sentence has become more random and arbitrarily sought and imposed, and fraught with uncertainty and unreliability, and it fails constitutional examination,” it said.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has advocated to abolish the death penalty, summed up the court’s historic decision well:
“It puts us on the right side of history,” he said. “I’m sure our kids would get rid of this if we didn’t.”