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The Death Penalty Becomes Illegal in Washington State

After hearing the last appeal from a man on death row, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the death penalty, as applied in the state, is unconstitutional.

Washington's nine justices were unanimous in the part of the ruling that eliminated the death penalty. A majority statement endorsed by five justices stated that the death penalty "is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner." The eight people on death row in Washington will now serve life sentences.

The justices in the majority largely concurred with an amicus brief the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 2016. In that brief to the court, the ACLU argued that "the Washington scheme unfailingly results in arbitrary death sentences, sentences predicted by geography and race rather than the gravity of the crime and the circumstances of the accused's life, and sentences devoid of any legitimate penological purpose." The brief also noted that a study had found black defendants to be four and a half times more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to death in Washington.

After the ruling on Thursday, the ACLU tweeted in support, writing, "We won't stop fighting until [the death penalty] is struck down everywhere in America."

Washington joins 19 other states (as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico) that have abolished the death penalty. The 30 remaining states still allow it. According to data collected by the Criminal Justice Project in 2017, over 2,000 people are currently on death row in the United States.

The U.S. is one of 53 countries in which killing people as a form of punishment is legal. No European country allows the death penalty, with the exception of Belarus.