The state Supreme Court was just the scene of a two-year-long, back-and-forth scientific smackdown, which ended in the death penalty being thrown out. The professor at the center of it all talks about the experience.
When the state Supreme Court threw out the death penalty the other day, the justices’ opinions naturally focused on weighty constitutional questions, about equal rights and the proportionality of punishment in our criminal-justice system.
But most of the four-year-long case that led to the landmark ruling was consumed by a far less lofty question: Is Katherine Beckett legit?
Who, you ask? That’s what she was wondering.
“I had no idea that my work, or questions about my competence, would become so central to a constitutional death-penalty case,” Beckett told me Friday. “So to have it come out the way it did … it was exhausting and suspenseful, but in the end, extremely gratifying.”
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Beckett is the University of Washington sociology professor whose 2014 study of capital-murder cases in our state found that black defendants were four times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants of other races. It’s no exaggeration to say this single finding killed the death penalty.
“To reach our conclusion, we afford great weight to Beckett’s analysis and conclusions,” was how Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst put it in the court’s unanimous ruling Thursday.
But it’s also no exaggeration to say that Beckett, a UW prof for 18 years, was put on trial every bit as much as the death penalty itself.
She and her co-author, Heather Evans, who was then a grad student but is now a UW sociology lecturer, were blasted as unethical by a state-hired expert. He accused them of “opportunistically” jiggering the models to reach a predetermined result. The state’s attorneys derisively dubbed their work “garbage in, garbage out.”
Beckett’s study “should play no part in reasoned discussion about the role of race in the imposition of the death penalty,” wrote the University of California, Irvine, professor who was hired by the state, in a blistering 116-page critique.
Little known to the public, a behind-the-scenes scientific smackdown consumed the case for more than two years. About halfway through, the court went to the unusual step of deputizing a court commissioner solely to referee the hundreds of pages of disputes about statistical analysis and modeling.
It all revolved around one study, based on trial reports filled out by the judges in aggravated-murder cases. It looked at all 297 aggravated-murder cases from 1981 to 2014 in our state in which the defendants were both adults and eligible for the death penalty.
The second sentence of the study is shocking in its own right, and maybe helps explain why folks got so riled up: “To date, however, no published study has examined the role of race in capital sentencing in Washington State, where the death penalty was first authorized 160 years ago.”
We’ve never even looked at the issue before? We’re putting people to death and we didn’t even want to know.
“It is surprising,” was all Beckett would say about the lack of past analysis about race.
The findings of the study are fascinating. For starters, prosecutors over the 33-year period showed no racial bias at all when deciding whether to seek the death penalty, the study showed. Prosecutors were no more likely to bring the death-penalty hammer down on black defendants than anyone else.
But juries were not so equitable. At sentencing, which in capital cases also goes to the jury, black defendants were four times as likely to get death, Beckett found.
“It really implicates the juries,” she said of her study. She said it could be explicit racial bias or implicit, subconscious bias — it’s impossible to know for sure.
The study attempted to correct for other factors in the cases, such as the number of murder victims or whether sex crimes were involved (the latter is much more likely to lead to a death sentence, as is killing a police officer.)
“Every possible objection they threw at us about our work, we answered,” Beckett said. That included submitting testimony from 12 experts backing their methods, correcting some data errors and re-running the analysis using different models. “The core finding about racial bias in the death penalty never changed.”
Here’s how the court summed it up: “Where new, objective information is presented for our consideration, we must account for it. As a result of the State’s challenge and … fact-finding process, Beckett’s analysis became only more refined, more accurate, and ultimately, more reliable.”
In academia, which is dominated by caveats and gray areas, that’s what’s known as a slam dunk.
Beckett says the ruling is a landmark because it acknowledges racial bias in our justice system — which this story shows can be extremely difficult for us to do. But she was also heartened by it for another reason.
“They took the social scientific work very seriously, including in how hard they vetted it,” she said of the court. “In this era of fact-free, emotion-based decision-making, I was pleased by that — to see that rigorous science still matters.”
It turns out science is still legit. That’s as good news as I’ve reported in this space in quite some time.