STUDIES: Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants

According to a recent study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. Nicholas Brown, general counsel to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said, "It's positive to see that prosecutors aren't unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment. At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries." The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. Gov. Inslee recently placed a moratorium on executions, citing the unequal application of the death penalty as one of his reasons for halting executions.

The study was commissioned by attorneys for death-row inmate Allen Gregory. Lila Silverstein, one of Gregory's attorneys, said, "Washington is not a state that tolerates discrimination, even when it doesn't involve a matter of life and death. We can't be putting people to death based on their race."

(G. Johnson, "Report: Race factors when jurors impose execution," Associated Press, February 25, 2014). Read the study K. Beckett & H. Evans, THE ROLE OF RACE IN WASHINGTON STATE CAPITAL SENTENCING, 1981-2012, Jan. 27, 2014. An updated version of the study, using data through 2014, is available here. See Race and Studies.