Court upholds solitude for state's death-row inmates
A Department of Corrections' decision to return a condemned prisoner to solitary confinement from a unit that gave him more freedoms but fell victim to budget cuts did not violate the prisoner's rights, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A Department of Corrections decision to return a condemned prisoner to solitary confinement from a unit that gave him more freedoms but fell victim to budget cuts, did not violate the prisoner's rights, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The petition by inmate Jonathan Lee Gentry was dismissed by a 7-2 vote.
His lawyer, Timothy Ford, said Thursday the petition was filed on behalf of all inmates on death row. Ford said they have not decided whether to appeal the decision.
When Gentry first arrived at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla nearly 20 years ago, death-row inmates were kept alone but had daily access to other prisoners, Ford said.
Gentry spent his first year in solitary confinement, standard practice for inmates coming to death row at the time. After that, he was moved into what was then called the Special Housing Unit, where he was allowed "additional privileges, including daily contact with other inmates during out-of-cell leisure time, employment as a tier porter, and family-contact visits," according to the Supreme Court decision.
But when the Department of Corrections was facing budget constraints in 2008, the agency moved all death-row inmates into solitary confinement for the duration of their stays at the prison, the Supreme Court decision said. Since 2008, Gentry's only daily contact with other people has been brief encounters with guards, Ford said.
"It can cause you to go crazy, and it's a horrible way to be," Ford said.
Justices Debra Stephens and Richard Sanders dissented, writing that "Gentry raises a significant question" as to whether death-row inmates are facing a significantly harsher punishment by the state after their convictions.
"... budget cuts do not necessarily explain why the graduated system of prisoner benefits, most notably contact visits with family, had to be cut as well," Stephens wrote. "I would remand this case to a superior court for a reference hearing to make determinations as to several factual questions that are unanswered here."
Gentry, the longest-serving inmate still on death row, was sentenced to death in 1991 for raping and killing 12-year-old Cassie Holden in Bremerton. The Pocatello, Idaho, girl had been visiting her mother in Bremerton in June 1988. An autopsy found she'd been beaten with a large rock.
Witnesses reported seeing a black man in the area, and Gentry, who is black, had a long criminal history and quickly came under suspicion after he was arrested for the knife-point rape of a young woman in Kitsap County.
Gentry was charged with Holden's murder after hair and blood on his shoelaces linked him to the crime.
In January 1995, the state Supreme Court upheld Gentry's death sentence in a 6-3 decision. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by Gentry for a hearing on his appeal to overturn his conviction.
In February 1999, the state Supreme Court again upheld Gentry's death sentence. In a 7-2 decision, the court said, "Gentry has not provided us any reasons to re-examine issues we previously resolved in direct review. Moreover, he has not demonstrated the existence of new issues" to examine.
Ford said Gentry's conviction is awaiting a hearing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The last person to be executed in Washington state was Cal Coburn Brown, who died by lethal injection Sept. 10 for the May 1991 rape and murder of Holly Washa, 21, in a SeaTac motel.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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