Report: Washington State Supreme Court cited misleading statistics in ruling against death penalty

October 14, 2018

Report: Washington State Supreme Court cited misleading statistics in ruling against death penalty Erik Cox Photography / Shutterstock.com

The Supreme Court of Washington recently ruled that the state’s death penalty system was unconstitutional because they said that judges are more likely to assign the penalty to African American defendants.

But the court may have used the results of a bunk study to come to that conclusion.

Get out of jail free race card

In its majority opinion on State v. Gregory, the court cited a study by Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington that found that black Americans were three-to-five times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants of other races. As such, the court’s opinion read: “We are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance.”

The state Supreme Court went on to agree that the death penalty in Washington amounts to “excessive bail,” “excessive fines,” or “cruel punishment,” each of which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who issued a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014 because he believed that counties were applying it unequally, praised the court’s decision in a press release on Thursday, stating:

Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington. 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.

Unscientific method

But there are several reasons to distrust the study that the Washington Supreme Court ultimately used to end state-sponsored executions. For starters, it wasn’t an independent study produced by unbiased researchers: it was actually commissioned by the attorneys representing death row inmate Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man convicted of raping and murdering a white woman in Pierce County in 1996.

Beckett, who supervised the study, isn’t a very impartial scientist, either. She is a liberal activist opposed to “mass incarceration” and the death penalty, an epithet that garners genuine concerns about the impartiality of her study — which was commissioned to save a man from the death penalty — and whether her conclusions were preconceived.

The study also suffers from numerous methodological weaknesses. Beckett’s team only reviewed 285 cases, a sample size far too small to make definitive judgements about any subject, let alone one involving matters of public safety.

Beckett tried to find “similarly-situated” defendants on death row whose circumstances — like past criminal history, number of victims and aggravating circumstances — are similar. However, Pam Loginsky, a staff attorney at the prosecutor’s association, said in 2014 that the study did not control for factors that might influence a jury’s decision to seek the death penalty.

Loginsky maintained that researchers failed to consider the strength of a prosecutor’s case, the vulnerability of the victim, and the mental health of the defendant in their examination. And while the study claimed to look at death row inmates with similar criminal histories, Loginsky argued: “It lumps prior murderers in with prior robbers.”

“I don’t believe there is any conscious consideration of race, and I don’t believe the statistics bear out any impropriety based on race,” Loginsky said. “I can’t tell you that an individual juror in a given case doesn’t decide to extend mercy to the defendant because of his race, or because he has a cute smile, or because he resembles her favorite uncle. There can be any reason why a particular juror says, this person merits leniency.”

Unequal prosecutions

Finally, the report actually found the prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in cases involving white defendants. Responding to this finding, Inslee’s general counsel Nicholas Brown said: “It’s positive to see that prosecutors aren’t unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment.”

Someone should notify Gov. Inslee that disproportionately seeking the death penalty against white defendants is, in fact, “unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment.”

The contradictory double standards in a liberal justice system are simply appalling.


Benjamin Baird

Benjamin Baird is a senior staff writer for the Conservative Institute. He is a veteran infantryman of Iraq and Afghanistan with over 1000 days in combat and holds a degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University. Ben is a regular contributor at the Middle East Forum and has written for dozens of conservative publications, including The Daily Caller, American Spectator, American Thinker, New English Review and Yahoo News.