Politics & Government

State death penalty on trial

OLYMPIA – A trial began Thursday in a suit filed by three men on Washington’s death row who allege that the state’s method of administering lethal injections violates the state’s constitutional protections against cruel punishment and unnecessary pain.

Attorneys with the Perkins Coie firm in Seattle, which represents plaintiff Darold Stenson, argued in filings that if the state Department of Corrections administered only one drug in its lethal injections – sodium thiopental – there would be a reduced risk of “excruciating pain before death.”

The current lethal injection protocol includes three drugs, administered in the following order: sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that renders an inmate unconscious; pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing drug; potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Corrections Department, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court already has rejected the inmates’ claims that the current three-drug combination is unconstitutional.

Attorneys for Corrections also reject the plaintiffs’ claims that Washington’s constitution offers broader protection against cruel punishment than the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution bars “cruel and unusual punishment,” while the language in Washington’s constitution bars “cruel” punishment only.

During Thursday’s court proceedings, plaintiff Stenson testified from the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla via videoconference. He testified that he is a diabetic and under medical care at the prison. He said medical personnel have had difficulty finding his veins for intravenous lines and to draw blood. One of Stenson’s attorneys, Sherilyn Peterson, has argued in court filings that Stenson runs a greater risk of suffering unnecessary pain under Corrections’ lethal injection protocols because of his medical condition.

Stenson, 56, was convicted and sentenced in 1994 for the 1993 shooting deaths of his wife, Denise, 28, and his business partner, Frank Hoerner, 33, in Clallam County. Stenson has maintained he is innocent.

The other death penalty inmates who are party to the suit are:

Cal Coburn Brown, 51, who was convicted of aggravated murder for the 1991 rape and murder of Holly Washa of Burien. Brown was convicted of carjacking Washa near Sea-Tac Airport and raping and torturing her over a two-day period, then stabbing and strangling her to death.

Jonathan Gentry, 52, who was convicted in Kitsap County in 1991 of fatally bludgeoning a 12-year-old girl, Cassie Holden of Pocatello, Idaho, when she was visiting her mother in the Bremerton area.

The civil trial for the three inmates will continue today in Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham’s courtroom.