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Appeal and Review of Death Sentences in Washington State

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.
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