SEATTLE – Two years ago, when Washington’s Supreme Court was reviewing the death sentence assigned to a black man accused of raping and murdering a 65-year-old woman, Justice Charles Wiggins found himself troubled by numbers.
Juries in the state were more likely to sentence African-Americans, Wiggins noted; they did so in 62 percent of cases involving black defendants versus 40 percent for white defendants. In a dissenting opinion, the justice suggested further study was needed to determine whether the trend was statistically significant.
A new report from a University of Washington sociologist aims to answer the question. It finds that while prosecutors have actually been slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants, jurors have been three times more likely to impose it against black ones, other circumstances being similar.
Expense, differences in application by county and the high rate of overturned death sentences – rather than racial disparities – were the main reasons Gov. Jay Inslee cited this month when he announced a moratorium on executions under his watch. But if true, the report’s findings echo his worry that capital punishment is “unequally applied,” even in Washington, a state many consider to have the nation’s most restrictive death-penalty system.
“It’s positive to see that prosecutors aren’t unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment,” Inslee’s general counsel, Nicholas Brown, said after reviewing the report. “At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries.”
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said he has long known that prosecutors here aren’t more likely to seek execution against black defendants. But the association was less quick to accept the report’s findings on what effect a defendant’s race has on jurors, saying the study failed to control for some key factors that could help explain why some defendants received a death sentence while others didn’t.
The report, by professor Katherine Beckett, was commissioned by Lila Silverstein and Neil Fox, attorneys for death row inmate Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man convicted of raping and murdering a white woman in Pierce County in 1996. Silverstein and Fox plan to submit the report to the high court as part of Gregory’s appeal next month.
But Pam Loginsky, a staff attorney at the prosecutor’s association, pointed to what she described as several shortcomings with the study, noting it did not control for factors that might influence a jury. Those include the strength of a prosecutor’s case, the vulnerability of the victim, any mental illness of the defendant and the nature of a defendant’s criminal record: “It lumps prior murderers in with prior robbers,” she wrote in an emailed critique.