Under Washington's capital punishment statute, defendants in Washington state convicted of aggravated first-degree murder may be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole or they may be sentenced to death. A defendant may be found guilty of aggravated first degree murder if he or she commits first degree murder with the following aggravating circumstances:

(1) The murderer:

  • was serving a term of imprisonment, had escaped, or was on authorized or unauthorized leave in or from a state facility or program;
  • was in custody in a county or county-city jail for a felony;
  • committed the murder pursuant to an agreement that he or she would receive money or any other thing of value for committing the murder;
  • solicited another person to commit the murder and had paid or had agreed to pay money or any other thing of value for committing the murder;
  • committed the murder to obtain or maintain his or her membership or to advance his or her position in the hierarchy of an organization, association, or identifiable group;
  • committed the murder by shooting a firearm from a vehicle or near a vehicle that was used to transport the murderer or the firearm to the scene of the crime;
  • committed the murder to conceal the commission of a crime or to protect or conceal the identity of any person committing a crime, including, but specifically not limited to, any attempt to avoid prosecution as a persistent offender;
  • committed the murder while in the course of or while fleeing from one of the following crimes: Robbery in the first or second degree; rape in the first or second degree; burglary in the first or second degree or residential burglary; kidnapping in the first degree; arson in the first degree
  • committed multiple murders as part of a common scheme or single act;
  • committed the murder, knowing there was a court order, issued in this or any other state, prohibiting him or her from contact with the victim; or
  • committed the murder against a family or household member and had previously engaged in a pattern or practice of three or more of the following crimes committed upon the victim within a five-year period, regardless of whether a conviction resulted: Harassment; or
  • Any criminal assault.

(2) The victim was:

  • a law enforcement officer, corrections officer, or firefighter who was performing his or her official duties at the time of the act resulting in death and murderer knew it;
  • a judge; juror or former juror; prospective, current, or former witness in an adjudicative proceeding; prosecuting attorney; deputy prosecuting attorney; defense attorney; a member of the indeterminate sentence review board; or a probation or parole officer; and the murder was related to the exercise of official duties performed or to be performed by the victim; or
  • regularly employed or self-employed as a news reporter and the murder was committed to obstruct or hinder the investigative, research, or reporting activities of the victim.

(see RCW 10.95.020)

Washington's law

Washington's capital punishment law requires that capital punishment imposed by the state's courts be carried out at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Procedures for conducting executions are supervised by the Penitentiary Superintendent.

Methods of execution

Two methods of execution are legal in Washington: lethal injection and hanging. Lethal injection is used unless the inmate under sentence of death chooses hanging as the preferred execution method.

After an offender is sentenced

Within 10 days of a trial court entering a judgment and sentence imposing the death penalty, male defendants under sentence of death are transferred to the Penitentiary, where they remain in a segregation unit pending appeals and until a death warrant is issued setting the date for the execution. Female defendants under sentence of death are housed at the Washington Corrections Center for Women before being transferred to the Penitentiary no later than 72 hours prior to a scheduled execution.

Executions in Washington State

Since 1904, 78 persons have been executed in Washington, none of whom were women.

Executions by Ethnicity

Caucasian - 66
Black - 7
Asian - 2
Hispanic - 2
Eskimo - 1

Source: Department of Corrections

Appeal and Review

When the ultimate penalty is imposed, a defendant has several options for appeal. In the state-court system, the defendant or the defendant's attorney can file an appeal directly to the Washington State Supreme Court. They can also ask the state Supreme Court to review additional issues by filing a collateral challenge. This is often in the form of a personal restraint petition. A defendant can also file a collateral challenge in federal court. A collateral challenge is most commonly known as a habeas corpus petition.

In addition to these optional appeals, Washington law requires that the state Supreme Court conduct a four-part review of every death sentence imposed in the State of Washington. This process is called statutory or mandatory review and cannot be waived by the defendant.

In recent years, legislators and the public have raised growing concerns over the length of time required to process appeals in death-penalty cases. In part, that concern has been addressed in new laws designed to tighten appeal rules and streamline the procedure. Nevertheless, multiple appeal avenues still exist and ensure that every defendant has ample opportunity to raise legitimate legal challenges to the imposition of the state's ultimate penalty.

During both appellate and mandatory-review proceedings the defendant has the right to court-appointed legal counsel. In federal habeas corpus petitions involving death sentences, the federal court also usually appoints counsel for the defendant.

With one exception, only defendants and their legal counsel have standing to file any of these appeals. The only exception is if the defendant is or may be mentally incompetent. In that case, a court may allow a third party to file an appeal on the defendant's behalf.

New laws enacted by the Legislature and Congress since 1990 were designed to streamline the appeals process for defendants sentenced to death in aggravated first-degree murder cases. These streamlining measures include time limits on when an appeal or petition may be filed and how many petitions may be pursued by the defendant.

Source: Washington State Attorney General

History of the Death Penalty

Notable cases

In March 2004, both houses of the Washington state legislature passed resolutions stating that Chief Leschi was wrongly convicted and executed in Washington territory in 1858 and asked the state supreme court to vacate Leschi's conviction. The court's chief justice, however, said that this was unlikely to happen, since it was not at all clear that the state court had jurisdiction in a matter decided 146 years earlier in a territorial court. On December 10, 2004, Chief Leschi was exonerated by a unanimous vote by a Historical Court of Inquiry following a trial in absentia.

Notable Exonerations

On March 2, 1994, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan overturned Benjamin Harris' conviction and vacated his sentence of death for the 1984 murder of Jimmy Turner on the basis that his original trial lawyer had been incompetent. Harris's attorney interviewed only 3 of the 32 witnesses listed in police reports and spent less than 2 hours consulting with Harris before trial. Harris's co-defendant was acquitted. Bryan ordered Harris released from custody if not brought to a speedy retrial. The decision was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 12, 1995. The prosecution decided not to retry Harris but tried to have him confined as insane. (They had previously argued that he was competent to stand trial.) On July 16, 1997, a jury decided that Harris should not be imprisoned at Western State Hospital. Harris maintains his innocence and says he was framed.

Milestones in abolition/reinstatement

Washington abolished the death penalty in 1913, but reinstated it in 1919. The statute remained unchanged until 1975, when it was again abolished. A referendum in the same year reinstated it for a second time as the mandatory penalty for aggravated murder in the first degree. U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Woodson v. North Carolina and Roberts v. Louisiana invalidated laws that mandated death sentences and the statute was modified to give detailed procedures for imposing the death penalty.

This new law was itself found unconstitutional by the Washington Supreme Court, as a person who had pled not guilty could be sentenced to death, while someone who pled guilty would receive a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The current law was passed in 1981 to correct these constitutional defects.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

Offenders Sentenced to the Death Penalty

1. JONATHAN LEE GENTRY convicted June 26, 1991 of fatally bludgeoning Cassie Holden, 12, on June 13, 1988 in Kitsap County.

2. CLARK RICHARD ELMORE convicted on July 6, 1995 of one count of aggravated first degree murder and one count of rape in the second degree for the rape and murder of Christy Onstad, 14, the daughter of his live-in girlfriend on April 17, 1995 in Whatcom County.

3. DWAYNE A. WOODS convicted on June 20, 1997 of two counts of aggravated first degree murder for the murders of Telisha Shaver, 22, and Jade Moore, 18, on April 27, 1996 in Spokane County.

4. CECIL EMILE DAVIS convicted February 6, 1998 of one count of aggravated first degree murder for the suffocation/asphyxiation murder of Yoshiko Couch, 65, with a poisonous substance after burglarizing her home, robbing and then raping her January 25, 1997 in Pierce County.

5. DAYVA MICHAEL CROSS convicted June 22, 2001 for the stabbing deaths of his wife Anouchka Baldwin, 37, and stepdaughters Amanda Baldwin, 15, and Salome Holle, 18 in King County on March 6, 1999.

6. ROBERT LEE YATES JR. convicted September 19, 2002 of murdering Melinda Mercer, 24, in 1997 and Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, in 1998 in Pierce County.

7. CONNER MICHAEL SCHIERMAN convicted April 12, 2010 of four counts of aggravated first degree murder in the deaths of Olga Milkin, 28; her sons Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3; and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24, July 16, 2006 in King County.

8. ALLEN EUGENE GREGORY reconvicted on May 15, 2012 of first-degree aggravated murder for the rape and murder of 43-year-old Geneine Genie Harshfield on July 26, 1996 in Pierce County. Originally convicted and sentenced to death on May 25, 2001, Gregory's case was overturned by the Washington Supreme Court on November 30, 2006. The original charge was upheld in a retrial and the death sentence was reissued on June 13, 2012.

For more information, review the Capital Punishment Case Status Report published monthly by the Attorney General's Office.

Source: Department of Corrections

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