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July 30, 2010

Washington state on track to be second jurisdiction to use one-drug lethal injection protocol

As detailed in this local story, headlined "State Supreme Court lifts stay of execution for convicted murderer," it appears that Washington may soon join Ohio on the list of states actually using a one-drug lethal injection protocol to execute condemned murderers. Here are the basic details:

The Washington State Supreme Court upheld the state's use of lethal injection for condemned inmates on Thursday, likely resulting in at least one execution in the coming months. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Debra Stephens, the court lifted a stay of execution for one death-row inmate, Cal Coburn Brown. His execution is now scheduled for Sept. 10.

Brown's appeal, which was joined by two other condemned inmates, had effectively put a hold on executions for the past year as the case wound through the courts. But Thursday's ruling rejected his argument that the state's method of lethal injection amounted to the type of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the state and U.S. constitutions.

The ruling stemmed from a Thurston County lawsuit in which the three inmates argued that the state's long-standing three-drug method of lethal injection — an anesthetic, a paralyzer and a heart-attack-inducing drug — was unconstitutionally painful and prone to mistakes.

During trial, their attorneys argued a single drug method — an overdose of the anesthetic sodium thiopental — was more humane.

After the Thurston County judge upheld the three-drug method, but before the case being heard by the state's highest court in March, the Department of Corrections switched to the one-drug method, making it the default means of execution and making the argument in the appeal moot. "There is no evidence presented by the Appellants ... that pain associated with the maladministration of sodium thiopental rises to the level of cruel or unusual punishment," Stephens wrote.

Sherilyn Peterson, a Seattle defense attorney who tried the case, said the DOC's new execution method is an improvement. But she was disappointed that the Supreme Court did not address one of her key issues — the qualifications of the execution team to insert an IV. "Under either policy, you do need to look at the qualifications of the people doing this," she said.

She suggested that the death-row inmates may continue to press their case. "There are other avenues for litigation," she said.

The ruling put Brown on the road to being the first person executed in Washington since 2001. Sara di Vittorio, an assistant attorney general who tried the case, said Brown has exhausted his state appeals. "It makes us actually believe there will be an execution, quickly," she said.

Brown, 52, was convicted of raping, torturing and killing Holly Washa in a Sea-Tac hotel in 1991, before leaving her body in the trunk of her car. He fled to California, and was arrested after being accused of another brutal sexual assault and murder. "Cal Brown's sadistic and predatory crimes rank him among the worst of the worst criminals in our state, and there can be no doubt about his guilt," King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in a statement. "If we are serious about having a death penalty in the State of Washington then it is time to carry out the sentence."

Under the new DOC policy on executions, the superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla must soon assemble an execution team. The previous team quit in the midst of the Thurston County trial when the inmates' attorneys asked for information on their medical training.

The new policy makes the one-drug lethal injection the primary method of death, but also allows the inmate to choose the three-drug method, or hanging. Since Washington reinstituted the death penalty in 1975, the state has killed four men.

July 30, 2010 at 12:37 PM | Permalink

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