Washington State Abandons Capital Punishment; California Could Be Next

Washington State recently became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty. In a unanimous opinion, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” This is actually the third time the death penalty has been declared unconstitutional in the state. The high court also made the same ruling back in 1972 and 1976. Changes to the state’s procedures were changed to address the court’s concerns.

It’s unlikely that capital punishment will return to the state of Washington. In recent years, the death penalty has become increasingly unpopular across the country. Concerns range from which defendants tend to be sentenced to death to how the death penalty is actually administered. Today, most death row defendants spend years, if not decades, behind bars waiting to die. There’s no immediate closure for a victim’s family, states spend millions on prisoners locked away, and defendants have to stare down a very slow, but impending, death. There’s so swift justice when a defendant is sentenced to the ultimate punishment.

California’s Own Turbulent History With Capital Punishment

The death penalty has always been controversial in California. The state executed more than 700 inmates between 1778 and 1972. In 1972, the California Supreme Court held that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional. All executions stopped. Voters, unhappy with the result, passed Proposition 17 and fixed issues highlighted by the court. Executions resumed, but the state seemingly became hesitant to implement the penalty on a regular basis. Only 13 inmates were executed between 1972 and 2006. No inmates have been executed in the state of California in more than 12 years.

In 2014, Cormac J. Carney, a United States District Judge in California, held the state’s death penalty system to be unconstitutional. In fact, the District Court judge’s reasoning was very similar to that used by the state Supreme Court justices who recently overturned capital punishment in Washington. The judge offered that the death penalty system was “arbitrary” and “completely dysfunctional.” His primary concern regarded the length of the process itself. According to the judge, the death penalty process, from start to finish, took so long that the punishment was “stripped of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had.” Carney’s decision was ultimately overturned on appeal, but only for procedural reasons.

The state swiftly moved into action in 2016. Voters passed Proposition 66 by a margin of 51-49. Proposition 66 addressed the concerns brought up by Judge Carney and required the death penalty appeals process to be concluded in no more than 5 years. However, the Proposition itself did not offer any guidance or suggestions for how this expedited process could work. The death penalty appeals process is so nuanced and complex that many experts believe it is highly unlikely for any appeals to be resolved in such a short amount of time. Under the new Proposition, it’s quite possible that death row inmates could be stripped of their Constitutional rights in exchange for an accelerated process.

Will California Follow Suit?

The death penalty has always been a highly divisive issue for voters in California. Proposition 66, which addressed the unacceptably-long death penalty appeals process, passed by a margin of 51-49. It also wasn’t the only Proposition on the ballot in 2016. Proposition 62 have abolished the death penalty in the state of California. The measure failed by a margin of 53-47. Proposition 62 was actually quite similar to Proposition 34, which was first introduced back in 2012. Proposition 34 failed by a margin of 52-48. If a similar voting initiative were introduced in a few years, it’s quite possible that public opinion could shift enough to abolish the death penalty for good.

The fate of the death penalty doesn’t have to be in the hands of voters. All three branches of the government have the power to abolish capital punishment. In the past two decades, seven states have relied on judges and lawmakers to end the death penalty. Three other states have applied a temporary stay of all executions thanks to orders directly from the Governor.

Governor Jerry Brown has been incredibly busy in his last few months of office. He’s been a staunch opponent of capital punishment, so it may not be surprising if he issues a moratorium before his term is up at the end of the year. His successor would likely be chiefly responsible for determining the fate of capital punishment in the state. Who voters choose to lead the state next could offer a lot of insight about the future of the death penalty.

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