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Death, Revised 

Everything you wanted to know about state-sponsored executions

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Washington state just changed the way it kills people. Last March, when the execution of murderer, torturer and rapist Cal Coburn Brown was set to be executed, three drugs would have been used to kill him. Today, only one would be used. All of which raises a few questions.

WHY THE CHANGE?

The old way: Sodium thiopental knocks the offender unconscious. Pancuronium bromide paralyzes the body and stops breathing. Potassium chloride stops the heart. But a lawsuit from three Washington death row inmates argued the three-drug method is cruel, unusual and unconstitutional.

The concern is that sodium thiopental wears off too quickly, leaving the condemned paralyzed and in severe pain. (The Thurston County Superior Court upheld the method’s constitutionality in July 2009.)

A large dose of sodium thiopental, however, is more than enough to kill. To dodge challenges to their three-drug protocol, Ohio recently changed over to a one-drug method default. Washington soon followed.

“It’s easier on our staff,” says Dick Morgan, director of prisons for the Washington’s Department of Corrections. “It does get us out of that question of the challenge around potential risk of inflicting pain.”

Now, Attorney General Rob McKenna is arguing that the legal challenges to the three-drug process should be dropped, as they no longer apply.

HOW OFTEN DOES WASHINGTON EXECUTE PEOPLE?

Not very. In total, Washington has executed 77 people since 1904 (10 from Spokane County) — but only four since 1963. Currently, Washington has eight inmates on death row. Compare that to Texas, where, in the last 35 years, more than 400 have been executed.

WHEN DO PROSECUTORS PURSUE THE DEATH PENALTY?

It depends. Death is often reserved for first-degree murderers and usually for crimes with an “aggravated” component. That includes contract killings and the murder of cops, judges, witnesses or journalists in order to hamper the case. That also includes killing multiple victims as part of a common scheme or plan. (If you kill 15 people, all in different ways and for different reasons, it doesn’t count.)

When Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker deals with such cases, he meets with the other prosecutors and with all the victims’ families.

He tells them he supports the death penalty. “If you take a life, you should forfeit your own,” Tucker says. “It just feels right to me.”

But he also explains what he sees as the problem with the death penalty in Washington. “It takes too long. It keeps people on edge too long,” Tucker says. “The victims never get closure.”

Blake Pirtle — who murdered two Burger King employees — had 35 or 40 different types of appeals, Tucker says, and each time the victims’ families were notified. That’s part of the reason why, Tucker says, that when family members of the victims of serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. were polled, two-thirds said they didn’t want the death penalty.

“Yates would have been $10 million [to execute],” Tucker says. “Way more than it would cost to feed him for the rest of his life.”

Both Yates and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River killer, got life in prison (though Yates later received the death penalty on separate charges.) 

WHICH ARGUMENTS DOES THE DEFENSE USE?

Anything and everything, says public defender John Rodgers — one of three Spokane defense lawyers certified to deal with capital punishment cases.

“It’s a life,” Rodgers says. “You attack the statute, you attack the facts, you attack the law. You attack the mental state. You attack the method of execution. You challenge your own competence. You challenge everything.”

Whenever a jury brings back a favorable verdict, he says, you don’t know which gambit succeeded. “You [just] know you wouldn’t change a word you said,” Rodgers says.

WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF THE DEATH PENALTY?

Five Washington state senators tried to eliminate it, but the bill never left committee. Even so, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker explains there’s a worldwide trend to move away from the penalty. He attributes it to stories of death row inmates being exonerated through DNA evidence.

“Europe created the death penalty with beheading and burning at the stake,” Tucker says. “But I don’t think there’s a country in Europe today that still does it.”

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