Politics & Government

Scenes from an execution - they're rare here

Cal Coburn Brown is scheduled for execution Friday at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. If it's carried out, the execution will be the first in Washington since 2001. Brown has been on death row for 16 years.
Cal Coburn Brown is scheduled for execution Friday at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. If it's carried out, the execution will be the first in Washington since 2001. Brown has been on death row for 16 years. Associated Press

SPOKANE - The curtain rose to reveal James Homer Elledge, lying strapped to a gurney under a blue blanket.

It was just after midnight Aug. 28, 2001. Elledge, 58, had only minutes to live.

The convicted murderer had no last words. He took deep breaths, but did not look at the dozen witnesses watching through a window several feet away. The witness chamber was silent except for the scratching of reporters’ pens.

At 12:39 a.m., the execution team started releasing chemicals that ran along IV tubes into Elledge’s body. After what seemed an eternity, the curtain dropped. Elledge was pronounced dead at 12:52 a.m., completing his sentence for the 1998 stabbing and strangulation death of Eloise Fitzner, 47, at the Lynnwood church where he was a janitor.

A similar scene is likely early Friday when Cal Coburn Brown is scheduled to enter the execution chamber of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Unless he wins another stay, Brown will become the first person since Elledge to be executed in Washington, and the 78th since the first in 1904.

It will be only the fifth execution since 1993, and the third in a row by lethal injection. All others were by hanging.

Brown, 52, is to be executed for raping, torturing and murdering Holly Washa, 22, in 1991 over a period of days in a SeaTac hotel room.

Brown has been on death row for 16 years. Last year, he was just eight hours away from execution when his lawyers won a stay.

Judith Kay, professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound, has known Brown for eight years and visited him several times in prison. She opposes the death penalty, in part because it appears to be randomly applied. She noted that Green River killer Gary Ridgway pleaded guilty to killing 48 women in King County and was sentenced to life in prison. Both Elledge and Brown were convicted of killing one person.

“The myth is that we execute the worst of the worst, and we do not,” she said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who plans to witness the execution, disagreed.

“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,” Satterberg said after the state Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution in late July.

King County farmer James Champoux was the first person to be executed in Washington when he was hanged in 1904.

Washington abolished the death penalty in 1913, then reinstated it in 1919. It was abolished again in 1975, but a referendum the same year reinstated it.

No one was executed until child killer Westley Allen Dodd, who murdered three young boys and was caught trying to kidnap a fourth, was hanged in 1993. Triple killer Charles Campbell became the last person hanged in Washington, in 1994.

Jeremy Sagastegui was the first to die by lethal injection, in 1998, followed by Elledge in 2001. There has been no execution since, in part because the majority of death sentences get reversed on appeal.

Lethal injection, in which the condemned appears to fall asleep, has made for much less drama in Walla Walla’s execution chamber.

When Dodd was executed in 1993, it was the nation’s first hanging since 1965. Crowds of people gathered outside the prison, including capital punishment advocates who chanted “What the heck, stretch his neck,” and protesters who wept when news of the hanging was released.

Dodd requested hanging because that was the way one of his victims died. In his last words, spoken from the gallows, he said he had found peace in Jesus Christ.

A year later, Campbell refused to choose between hanging and lethal injection, so he was ordered hanged .

When his time came, Campbell fought the jailers and had to be carried out of his cell with the use of pepper spray. He wouldn’t stand up and repeatedly rotated his head so the noose could not be put on. The executioner had to strap him to a board to fasten the noose.

By contrast, the executions of Sagastegui in 1998 and Elledge in 2001 were relatively peaceful.

Sagastegui, 27, was sentenced to death for the 1995 murders of two women and a 3-year-old boy near Kennewick. He was the first condemned man to choose lethal injection in Washington, saying he didn’t “like the idea of my neck snapping.”

Sagastegui had no final public words and never looked at the witnesses. As the drugs were administered, his breathing came in spasms and his eyes fluttered. His arms, strapped to a board, eventually stopped moving.