In 2018, Washington joined 19 other states — and around two-thirds of countries worldwide — when the State Supreme Court struck down its death penalty.

The decision came in large part thanks to a six-year effort by UW Law alumna Lila Silverstein, J.D. ’06, along with her co-counsel Neil Fox.

The process started in 2012, when Silverstein and Fox were appointed as appellate counsel in the capital case of State v. Gregory.

Silverstein said she immediately thought of a recent dissent by Supreme Court Justice Charles Wiggins in another capital case. In his dissent, Justice Wiggins had expressed serious concerns about an apparent wide disparity in the percentage of black defendants vs. white defendants in Washington who were condemned to the ultimate penalty.

“One of the first things we did was to commission a study on race and the death penalty in Washington,” Silverstein said. “I felt that what Justice Wiggins was doing was issuing a call to action to get this done.”

Silverstein enlisted UW Sociology professor Katherine Beckett, who was already well known for a nationally influential study on racial disparity in drug law enforcement in Seattle, to conduct the study.

Beckett and her colleague Heather Evans’ study proved, among other things, that black defendants were four times more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to death in Washington. It became one of the primary factors in the court’s decision that the death penalty in Washington was untenable based on its arbitrary and racially biased application.

Photograph of Lila Silverstein with other attorneys.

In her 12-year career, Silverstein has had a real impact on social justice in the state.

Silverstein said her time at UW Law, including participation in the Innocence Project Northwest, “was absolutely an important formative experience for me.” She said things she learned from UW Law professors including Jacqueline McMurtrie, Stewart Jay, Kate O’Neill, Hugh Spitzer and Eric Schnapper were especially important to her professional development.

“All of those experiences were critical to me and enabled me to hit the ground running as soon as I started serving as an appellate public defender,” she said. “I continue to support UW Law and the UW in general because I appreciate how well the school prepared me for my public service career.”

Silverstein had another big win in 2018 with the adoption of General Rule 37, which added important protections designed to stop implicit and explicit racial bias in peremptory challenges during jury selection. She and other attorneys, including UW Law alumna La Rond Baker, had worked on the rule for years before the Supreme Court adopted it. In 2015, Silverstein successfully argued State of Washington v. E.J.J., a case that upheld citizens’ first amendment right to observe and criticize police use of force.