State Supreme Court ends death penalty in Washington
Washington’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that the death penalty is unconstitutional, ending the practice in the state.
“Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington,” said Governor Jay Inslee. “The court makes it perfectly clear that capital punishment in our state has been imposed in an ‘arbitrary and racially biased manner,’ is ‘unequally applied’ and serves no criminal justice goal. This is a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”
The court ruled 9-0 to strike down the death penalty. Governor Inslee has long opposed capital punishment in Washington state, and has controversially halted executions while in office. He placed a moratorium on the punishment in 2014 arguing that it is inconsistent and unequal.
“Washington’s Supreme Court issued an important decision today,” said Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “The court recognized that Washington state’s death penalty is broken. We should act quickly to remove the death penalty from state law once and for all. Next session, I will again propose legislation repealing the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
Who’s on death row?
People currently on death row in Washington will have their sentenced converted to life in prison. There are eight people on death row in the state. According to the Department of Corrections, those convicted are:
Johnathan Lee Gentry:
Convicted June 26, 1991 of fatally bludgeoning Cassie Holden, 12, on June 13, 1988 in Kitsap County.
Clark Richard Elmore:
Convicted on July 6, 1995 of one count of aggravated first degree murder and one count of rape in the second
degree for the rape and murder of Christy Onstad, 14, the daughter of his live-in girlfriend on April 17, 1995 in Whatcom County.
Cecil Emile Davis:
Convicted February 6, 1998 of one count of aggravated first degree murder for the suffocation/asphyxiation murder of Yoshiko Couch, 65, with a poisonous substance after burglarizing her home, robbing and then raping her January 25, 1997 in Pierce County.
Dayva Michael Cross:
Convicted June 22, 2001 for the stabbing deaths of his wife Anouchka Baldwin, 37, and stepdaughters Amanda Baldwin, 15, and Salome Holle, 18 in King County on March 6, 1999.
Robert Lee Yates Jr:
Convicted September 19, 2002 of murdering Melinda Mercer, 24, in 1997 and Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, in 1998 in Pierce County.
Conner Michael Schierman:
Convicted April 12, 2010 of four counts of aggravated first degree murder in the deaths of Olga Milkin, 28; her sons Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3; and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24, July 16, 2006 in King County.
Allen Eugene Gregory:
Reconvicted May 15, 2012 of first-degree aggravated murder for the rape and murder of 43-year-old Geneine “Genie” Harshfield on July 26, 1996 in Pierce County. Originally convicted and sentenced to death on May 25, 2001, Gregory’s case was overturned by the Washington Supreme Court on November 30, 2006. The original charge was upheld in a retrial and the death sentence was reissued on June 13, 2012.
Byron Eugene Scherf:
Convicted May 9, 2013 of aggravated first-degree murder for the murder of Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl on Jan. 29, 2011 while she was on duty at the Washington State Reformatory Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County.
According to the DOC, Washington state has executed 78 people with the last being Cal Coburn Brown in 2010 by lethal injection. Brown was convicted of the rape and murder of 21-year-old Holly Washa.
Death penalty ruling in context
Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said that a key understanding from the Supreme Court’s ruling is that the death penalty was unconstitutional because of how it was applied in the state.
“They are not saying we can never have a death penalty … they are saying that as applied under our current system, it’s unconstitutional,” McKenna told KIRO Radio.
That unconstitutionality largely has to do with the “inconsistent and unequal” argument that Governor Inslee and others have made.
“For example, an African American in our state is 4.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty for committing the same crime as a white person,” McKenna said. “It’s racially disproportionate.”
“It also is arbitrary how it is applied depending on where the crime occurs,” he said. “In other words, in some counties you are more likely to be subject to the death penalty than in other counties. That has to do with some counties not being able to afford death penalty cases.”
As a lawyer and attorney general, McKenna said he has historically been in favor of the death penalty. But over the past couple years he has become convinced that it is not working in Washington state.
He says that one of the arguments for the death penalty is that it deters murders of correctional officers. Another is that is gives prosecutors leverage over people who have committed horrific crimes.
“For example, the Green River Killer agreed to cooperate with the King County prosecuting attorney and ultimately admitted to more than 40 murders, helped prosecutor and the sheriff’s office locate the remains of victims, and helped bring closure to victims’ families by that cooperation and without the death penalty on the table might have have never agreed to that,” McKenna said.
“On the other hand, when the Green River Killer can murder more than 40 women and get life in prison, it causes people to look at that and say, ‘Well, how can anyone be sentenced to death who commits one murder,'” he said. “So that creates complications.”