State Supreme Court strikes down death penalty, converts sentences to life in prison

Washington’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it is “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the state Supreme Court said in a ruling Thursday.

The decision involved the Pierce County case of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of Geneine Harshfield at her Tacoma home.

Gregory’s death sentence and those of the other inmates on the state’s death row will be converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the court ruled.

Geneine Harshfield Courtesy photo

In appealing his sentence, Gregory commissioned a University of Washington study that found black defendants in the state were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in similar situations.

“By striking down the 1981 death penalty statute, Washington now joins the overwhelming majority of the world’s democracies in its respect for human life,” Neil Fox, one of Gregory’s attorneys, said in a statement.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he previously believed voters should have been able to take up the issue and that he thinks they likely would have rejected the death penalty as well.

“The death penalty in Washington was already on its last legs, because of the expense, uncertainty and length of the process,” he said. “This decision just makes it official. The death penalty is dead.”

Lindquist said it appears that Gregory and the other seven men on death row now will need to return to their trial courts to be formally sentenced to life without parole, but that his office’s appellate unit is still sorting out that process.

The high court’s decision notes that the state Legislature could enact a new capital punishment law but that “it cannot create a system that offends constitutional rights.”

Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday that he would veto such legislation.

Inslee, a Democrat, put a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, which has kept capital punishment from being carried out while he’s in office.

“Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington,” Inslee said in a statement. “... This is a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Phillip Reese reported Thursday that 30 states still have the death penalty, not including three with gubernatorial moratoriums on capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit.

There are about 2,740 prisoners on death row nationwide, down from a high of about 3,600 in 2000.

Black people are over-represented on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. About 42 percent of death row inmates are black, while about 12 percent of the U.S. population is black.

White people make up about 42 percent of the death row population and about 61 percent of the U.S. population, Reese reported. About 13 percent of death row inmates nationwide are Latino, and 3 percent are of another ethnicity.

During the last 10 years, about one third of prisoners executed were black, about 54 percent were white and roughly 13 percent were Latino.

Gregory, 46, is one of eight inmates on death row in Washington, and one of three who committed their crimes in Pierce County.

He tied up, raped and slashed 43-year-old Harshfield in her kitchen.

Two juries sentenced him to die. The state Supreme Court overturned his first death sentence, citing judicial and prosecutorial error.

Pierce County prosecutors tried for the death penalty again, and jurors sentenced Gregory to it once more in 2012.

“As noted by appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority in an opinion signed by four other justices. “The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal.”

The other four justices signed a concurring opinion that said they agreed the death penalty should be invalidated but for additional reasons.

In that opinion, Justice Charles Johnson wrote: “Where a system exists permeated with arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays, such a system cannot constitutionally stand.”

The other inmates on death row for Pierce County crimes are 66-year-old serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. and 59-year-old Cecil Emile Davis.

Yates killed 24-year-old Melinda Mercer in 1997 and 35-year-old Connie LaFontaine Ellis in 1998. He shot the women in the head, and dumped their bodies in Tacoma. He’s admitted to killing 15 people over multiple decades in Washington.

Davis killed 65-year-old Yoshiko Couch in 1997 in Tacoma as her invalid husband was home but couldn’t help her.

Davis raped Couch, smothered her with towels soaked in toxic solvent and robbed the couple, including taking the wedding ring off her finger.

Harshfield’s mother, 83-year-old Lee Peden, said she wasn’t surprised by the high court’s decision but that she was disappointed.

“I just think it’s so unfair that the people vote something in that they think they want, and then other people come along, that we vote for, and they just change things the way they want to change it,” she said, referring to a ballot initiative that enacted a new capital punishment law in 1975. “They wonder why people don’t vote anymore. It doesn’t seem to do us much good, does it?”

The high court’s ruling said the state’s death penalty laws, including the 1975 version, have been found unconstitutional several times before.

“As far as I’m concerned, Allen should have had one appeal within six months of his sentence, and when it was deemed that he was absolutely, no doubt guilty, which he was and he is, then the sentence should have been carried out within 90 days of that,” Peden said. “Then this would have all been over years and years ago.”

The court declined to consider Gregory’s arguments about his conviction for aggravated first-degree murder, which has previously been upheld.

“I miss my daughter terribly,” Peden added. “I have always missed her, and I’m sure I will continue to miss her.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell