At our 10-year anniversary celebration in May 2019, the UW Center for Human Rights proudly named Professors Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans as joint recipients of our second Justice Award, in recognition of their uniquely impactful research. On more than one occasion, their research has contributed directly to advances in human rights, most recently when the Washington State Supreme Court relied on their findings to strike down the state’s death penalty statute, based on racial disparities and arbitrariness in the application of capital punishment. The Center’s inaugural Justice Award was presented to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2017.
Beckett and Evans’ research on the death penalty began in 2012, when they were contacted by attorneys Lila Silverstein and Neil Fox. “They had a case involving an African-American defendant and they were looking for a researcher to assess whether there were unwarranted racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty in Washington state,” says Beckett, a Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Law, Societies & Justice.
This was the beginning of six years of painstaking research, which included coding hundreds of cases of capital crimes, and eventually sparring with a state-appointed expert. “We pretty much handed over everything and said, here’s what we were working with to come up with these results. And the state’s expert said, ‘I can’t replicate their results given these data’, which was a little stunning for us” recalls Evans, a lecturer for the Departments of Sociology and Law, Societies & Justice as well as the Disability Studies Program.
But Beckett and Evans’ results were solid: Black defendants in Washington state were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death than defendants of any other race after taking legally relevant case characteristics into account. The challenge by the state’s expert “was a way of testing every possible scenario,” says Evans. Evans was even able to reproduce an error by the state’s expert which led to the failure to replicate their findings. “There was no room left to argue that what we found wasn’t valid,” she says. “So then it was just a matter of, is this enough to persuade the Supreme Court?”
The Supreme Court’s decision came in October 2018, with the majority citing Beckett and Evans’ research as evidence of racial disproportionality constituting cruel punishment. The outcome was the effective end of capital punishment in Washington, with the sentences of 8 men on death row converted to life without the possibility of parole.
“It had become clear that the state’s serial murderers, who are white, were not getting the death penalty, and it’s pretty hard to argue that they’re not the worst of the worst,” says Beckett. “So I think it was intuitive to them already that there was arbitrariness in the system. I think their finding of racial bias was probably more linked to our research.”
While their research had undeniable impact, it was not without risks. “We weren’t able to find a top-tier sociology journal that would publish this,” Evans recalls. Beckett continues, “Because from their perspective, yeah, of course race matters, what’s new here?!?” Evans, who began this research as a graduate student, points out that these risks are especially acute for junior colleagues entering the job market: “There is a balance to be struck in terms of doing work that is meaningful but that still will allow you to have an academic career.”
It seems clear that Beckett and Evans are successfully striking that balance. “Katherine’s career reflects many projects that have had a direct impact,” Evans says.
“I think I’ve been fortunate in terms of the partnerships that I’ve been able to form—in many cases with Heather—we’ve been connected to the right people at the right time to make a change. Sometimes that’s been through a legislative process and sometimes it’s through the courts. And sometimes it’s just because you wear people down!” Beckett laughs, explaining, “I worked on racial inequality in drug law enforcement for many years with the Racial Disparity Project, and they never won a case, but they definitely wore people down. And the result of that was the creation of a pre-booking diversion program in King County that’s now being adopted all over the country. That was the result of just annoying people for a very long period of time.”
“But it was annoying them with solid, rigorous, data!” Evans quips.
Read more about Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans’ research in Columns, the UW alumni magazine.