Washington state says new execution method was carried out 'humanely'
Friday's execution of Cal Coburn Brown, the state's first lethal injection using a single drug, was carried out "professionally, humanely and was dignified," according to the state Department of Corrections.
Seattle Times staff reporter
WALLA WALLA — Friday's execution of Cal Coburn Brown, the first time the state has used just one drug in a lethal injection, was carried out "professionally, humanely and was dignified," according to the state Department of Corrections.
Washington and Ohio are the only two states that use a single drug, sodium thiopental, to execute condemned inmates. In other states, lethal injection is done with a three-drug cocktail, a method that has come under fire from defense lawyers and groups opposed to the death penalty.
"Our preparation, and from what we have learned from the state of Ohio, we had every confidence the one-drug protocol would be efficient and swift," Belinda Stewart, Corrections spokeswoman, said Friday.
Coburn was executed early Friday morning at the Washington State Penitentiary for the May 1991 rape and murder of Holly Washa, 21, in a SeaTac motel.
After making a nearly three-minute statement from the prison's death chamber, Brown was administered five grams of sodium thiopental intravenously while strapped to a gurney. His chest heaved three times and his lips shuddered, then there was no movement.
Witnesses said Brown died about a minute and a half after the drug was administered. He was pronounced dead by prison officials at 12:56 a.m. Brown was the first person executed in Washington since August 2001.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who witnessed the execution along with members of Washa's family and several news reporters, characterized Brown's death as "quick and painless."
"It's been so long that we have had to deal with all of this; now that it's over, I don't have to think about him anymore," a tearful Becky Washa, Holly's sister, told reporters during a news conference after the execution.
The Walla Walla County Coroner's Office is scheduled to perform an autopsy on Brown, 52, according to Stewart.
Portland-based anti-death-penalty attorney Jeff Ellis, who was a member of Brown's defense team, said "there are many reasons to conclude that the one-drug protocol lessens the risk of needless pain and suffering."
However, he said, it obscures the basic issue of whether the state should be in the business of killing.
"As long as we have a death penalty, we must take measures to avoid the needless infliction of pain on the person who is being killed," he said. "However, killing a human being is never humane when we could instead lock him up forever."
The state Supreme Court stayed Brown's execution last year after his attorneys claimed the state's three-drug method of lethal injection — the anesthetic sodium thiopental, as well as a paralyzer and a heart-attack-inducing drug — constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was prone to error. Two other inmates on death row, Darold Stenson and Jonathan L. Gentry, joined the appeal, which effectively put on hold executions in the state.
The Department of Corrections subsequently made the one-drug lethal injection the primary method of death, while also allowing the condemned to choose the three-drug method. Death-row inmates may opt for hanging instead of lethal injection. The last man to be executed by hanging was Charles Campbell in May 1994.
In July 2010, the state Supreme Court lifted the stay because the change in execution policy made the initial argument moot.
Over the past year, Ohio switched to the single-drug method after the botched execution of Romell Broom that was halted by Gov. Ted Strickland last September. Executioners unsuccessfully tried for hours to find a usable vein for injection, and Broom has appealed the state's attempt to try again.
Ellis said there is a condemned inmate on Oregon's death row who has petitioned to change that state's system of execution to the single-drug protocol.
He said he is certain other states watched how the one-drug protocol worked during Brown's execution.
"I think that within a couple of years, they'll go to the one-drug protocol," Ellis said Friday. It's just more humane. There just isn't any debate about that."
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org