State's execution team resigns, fearing identities would be revealed
Four people who voluntarily administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla quit their positions this week, apparently worried that their identities could become public as a result of an ongoing court case to decide whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Four people who have volunteered to administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla quit their positions this week, apparently worried that their identities could become public as a result of an ongoing court case to decide whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The four resigned Tuesday, which was the deadline Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham had set for the team's records -- detailing the members' credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs -- to be submitted for his review.
The state is now without a lethal-injection team, and it's unclear what effect the resignations will have on the court proceedings.
Death-row inmate Darold Stenson, who was sentenced to die in 1994 for killing his wife and business partner, filed his lawsuit last year, claiming that lethal injection can result in excruciating pain if not administered correctly.
Two other death-row inmates, Jonathan Gentry and Cal Coburn Brown, later filed similar suits, and the three cases were consolidated. Gentry was convicted in 1991 in Kitsap County of fatally bludgeoning 12-year-old Cassie Holden near Bremerton in 1981. Brown raped, tortured and murdered Holly Washa, 22, of Burien, in 1991.
The resignations are "a surprising and disturbing development," said Scott Englehard, the attorney representing Gentry. "This issue has nothing to do with guarding their identities."
Englehard said the plaintiff's attorneys already agreed that no identifying information related to the team members would be disclosed. The records were to be reviewed in camera, a time-honored legal tradition in which only a judge sees sensitive and confidential documents and then decides what information attorneys will be privy to, he said.
His client and the other plaintiffs have a right to inquire about the team's "experience or qualifications to properly carry out a lethal-injection execution," Englehard said.
Dan Sytman, a spokesman for State Attorney General Rob McKenna, confirmed the resignations and said the four were worried about Wickham's order to have their records held under seal inside the state attorney general's office. Typically, those records are kept in the office of the superintendent at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, he said.
"They were concerned their identities would become known as the process went along," he said. "We believe the court can confirm the constitutionality of the lethal-injection procedure without knowing the qualifications, training and experience of each of the lethal-injection team members."
Team members, who must all meet minimum qualifications, were approached and asked to serve based on their respective backgrounds, Sytman said. Three are current Department of Corrections (DOC) employees and the fourth is a retired employee, he said.
"Walla Walla is a small town, so it's not hard to figure out (someone's identity) based on their qualifications," Sytman said. "They don't want picketers showing up on their front lawns, and they don't want offenders knowing who they are."
The team members' identities are a closely guarded secret, known only to a handful of people, said Eldon Vail, secretary of the state DOC. He said even he doesn't know who's on the team.
"Historically and in the future, we'll do everything we can to guard their identities," Vail said. "It's not easy finding individuals" willing to serve on the lethal-injection team, and anyone who participates in an execution does so voluntarily.
There are currently no scheduled executions, "so we have some time" to figure out how to go about assembling a new team, Vail said. He's been in touch with other officials in other states, who have agreed to send a lethal-injection team to Washington if needed, but only if members' names are kept confidential.
"This is a very, very difficult duty that state law requires," Vail said. "This is tough work for lots of people, and it is not taken lightly."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654
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