On Thursday, October 11th, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in a majority opinion to abolish the death penalty, making Washington the 20th state in the nation to outlaw capital punishment. The court’s majority opinion cited concerns about the punishment being imposed arbitrarily and with racial bias, writing, “We are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance.”
According to the ACLU, they are only the third state Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty as unconstitutional by explicitly citing racial bias as a factor in their decision.
“There is nothing unique about the role racism played in Washington’s death penalty,” Jeff Robinson, a deputy legal director at the ACLU, told NPR. “What is rare is the Supreme Court’s willingness to call out the truth that has always been there. … Racial bias, conscious or unconscious, plays a role in the death penalty decisions across America, influencing who faces this ultimate punishment, who sits on the jury, what kind of victim impact and mitigation evidence is used, and who is given life or death.”
The death penalty had been suspended in the state since 2014, a decision made by then-newly elected Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, who urged state legislators to “join a growing national conversation about capital punishment.” Inslee, according to NPR, called this week’s Supreme Court’s decision “hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”
The ruling also converts the sentences of the eight inmates on the state’s death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. That includes the inmate whose petition to the court prompted the ruling, Allen Eugene Gregory, who was initially convicted and sentenced to death in 2001 for a rape and murder that occurred in 1996. His conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2006, but a retrial in 2012 resulted in a second guilty verdict and death sentence. Gregory’s appeal of his second conviction argued that the death penalty was unequally applied, end even commissioned a study of racial bias and the death penalty that found “black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.” The court’s opinion agreed with many of Gregory’s arguments and wrote that they gave “great weight” to the study’s conclusions in rendering their decision.
At the same time, they declined to reconsider Gregory’s conviction, which they had previously affirmed. Gregory will now spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of 43-year-old Geneine Harshfield, a cocktail waitress and mother of three, in Pierce County.
Gregory isn’t the only convicted killer from Pierce County to have his death sentence reduced as a result of the ruling. Robert Lee Yates Jr., also known as the Spokane Serial Killer, murdered more than a dozen women between 1988 and 1998. All of the victims were prostitutes who worked in the same area in Spokane and were solicited by Yates, who would have sex with them before shooting them in the head and dumping their bodies in rural locations. He was arrested in 2000 after police discovered blood from one of the victims in a car Yates previously owned; he agreed to plead guilty and confess to 12 other murders to avoid the death penalty, and was sentenced to 408 years in prison instead.
That all changed in 2002, when Yates was charged with the murders of two additional victims, Melinda L. Mercer, in 1997, and Connie Ellis, in 1998. He was convicted and sentenced to death; in appealing his sentenced, Yates argued that he believed his 2000 plea agreement was “all-encompassing,” even though Mercer and Ellis were not listed as victims in that case.
However, Yates’s case is an example of how the death penalty can be applied arbitrarily and not necessarily imposed in the worst possible cases. In his appeal, Yates pointed out that he received a life sentence for 13 murders, and by imposing a subsequent death sentence for two murders, the State demonstrated that its application could be “disproportionate, freakish, wanton and random.”
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Gregory’s attorneys, Neil Fox and Lila Silverstein, similarly argued, “Mr. Gregory is by no stretch of the imagination one of the worst offenders. Indeed, Washington’s worst are serving life sentences. Meanwhile, Allen Gregory is on death row for killing a single victim when he was only 24 years old and he has committed no other violent felonies.”
The six other inmates who have had their death sentences commuted to life in prison are Jonathan Lee Gentry, the state’s longest death row prisoner, who was convicted in 1991 for the bludgeoning death of 12-year-old Cassie Holden; Clark Richard Elmore, who raped and killed 14-year-old Christy Onstad in 1995; Cecil Emile Davis, who was convicted for the robbery, rape and suffocation/asphyxiation murder of Yoshiko Couch in 1998; Dayva Michael Cross, who was convicted in 2001 for the stabbing deaths of his wife Anouchka Baldwin, 37, and stepdaughters Amanda Baldwin, 15, and Salome Holle, 18; Conner Michael Schierman, who was convicted in 2010, four years after murdering Olga Milkin, 28, her sons Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3, and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24; and Byron Eugene Scherf, who was convicted in 2013 for the murder of Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl.