PORT ORCHARD — The death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional Thursday by the Washington state Supreme Court in Olympia.
Washington is the 20th state to do away with the death penalty.
The court’s justices ruling stems from the 1996 case against Allen Eugene Gregory, who was sentenced to die for raping and killing Geneine Harshfield in Tacoma. Gregory’s attorney argued the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and is not applied proportionally, as required by the state Constitution.
A full panel of justices agreed, issuing an opinion that stated: “The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The court also ordered that inmates on death row have their sentences converted to life in prison. Eight people are currently sentenced to death in Washington state.
“The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal,” the court wrote.
The justices refused, however, to review Gregory’s arguments about his conviction itself.
Some Kitsap County residents might remember the case involving Jonathan L. Gentry, now 62, who was convicted in 1991 of raping and fatally beating 12-year-old Cassie Holden in 1988 while she was visiting her mother in Bremerton. The young girl, who had been living in Idaho, was staying with her mother in Kitsap County during the summer.
Gentry reportedly killed the child with a two-pound rock while she was taking a walk before dinner. Holden’s body was found two days after the murder near Rolling Hills Golf Course.
In the 27 years since he was sentenced to death, the state Supreme Court has upheld Gentry’s sentence twice, in 1995 and 1999. He’s the longest-serving resident of death row.
The last person executed in the state was Cal Coburn Brown, who was put to death in 2010. Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on executions in 2014.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson acknowledged the impact the state Supreme Court’s latest decision has made on the state’s legal system.
“Washington’s Supreme Court issued an important decision today,” Ferguson said in a statement issued by his office after the announcement. “The court recognized that Washington state’s death penalty is broken. We should act quickly to remove the death penalty from state law once and for all. Next session, I will again propose legislation repealing the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
Ferguson first proposed bipartisan legislation in 2017 to abolish the death penalty in the state.
The state’s highest court left open a chance for the Legislature at some point to reinstate the death penalty statute. The court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, stated: “The legislature may enact a ‘carefully drafted statute’ … to impose capital punishment in this state, but it cannot create a system that offends … constitutional rights.”
According to a poll commissioned by the Northwest Progressive Institute, which opposes the death penalty, 69 percent of respondents in the state said they preferred one of three life-in-prison alternatives. Just 24 percent in the poll said they preferred the death penalty.