The NCSL Blog


By Amber Widgery

The Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty Thursday.

Washington's executon chamberThe ruling made Washington the 20th state to abolish capital punishment either by legislation or court action.

For the fourth time, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled the state’s capital punishment law unconstitutional as applied. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst writes that the “death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

The majority opinion of the court found that the law as applied violates Article I, Section 14 of the state constitution because it fails to serve any legitimate penological goal. The court’s order was unanimous with five justices signing the majority opinion and the remaining four justices signing a concurring opinion authored by Justice Charles Johnson.

It has been two years since there has been any major state action on capital punishment. In 2016, Delaware’s high court invalidated its state capital punishment statute, finding it unconstitutional. The state’s two remaining death row inmates were resentenced to life in prison earlier this year and, thus far, attempts to legislatively reinstate capital punishment have stalled.

A state legislature hasn’t abolished capital punishment since Nebraska did so in 2015, but the law was rapidly reinstated by a statewide vote in 2016. Prior to that, New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013) are the most recent states to legislatively abolish the death penalty.

For more information on recent capital punishment enactments and policy, visit NCSL’s webpage.

Amber Widgery specializes in capital punishment legislation and policy for NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.