Washington executes mentally ill prisoner

By: Andrea Crabtree

On October 13, Jeremy Sagastegui was the first person executed by lethal injection in Washington.

By protesting this execution, I learned two important things:

First, Washington approves of killing the mentally ill as long as they are "competent," and second, we must be involved at all stages of every capital case if we want to put an end to the death penalty. The system is not only warped, it's quick.

In November 1995, the murders weren't news in Seattle. Instead, reports of the crime remained within the small town east of the mountains. We heard about Jeremy when the execution date was set. He had confessed, acted as his own attorney, pled guilty and urged the jury to sentence him to death. Jeremy presented no mitigating evidence at trial and refused all appeals.

Suddenly, just weeks before the execution, Jeremy's mom began a desperate fight to save his life. Katie Vargas asked the Washington Supreme Court to find Jeremy incompetent and allow her to make his legal decisions. She argued that Jeremy wasn't competent based on his history of childhood abuse and mental illness, including being molested and sodomized as a child, being suicidal since age 14 and hearing voices in his head telling him to hurt or kill when he was in his twenties. "Defending" himself, Jeremy refused to allow any of this history to come out at trial.

The court denied all of Katie's motions in a one-line decision. Days later, she appealed in lower federal court and presented her case to the Clemency Board. Katie lost in court, but the Board voted 2-2 for life without parole instead of death. Again, Katie appealed. Finally, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Jeremy's competency was in question. They ordered a stay - less than 48 hours before the execution. Over the next few hours, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court concluded that Jeremy may have been mentally ill, but he was competent. So the stay was lifted.

At 8 p.m. on October 12, Governor Locke was Katie's last hope. Not surprisingly, the ex-prosecutor found "no miscarriage of justice" and nothing to merit leniency. He would not halt the execution - not even long enough for Jeremy to receive an adequate psychiatric exam. Four hours later, Jeremy was dead. The lesson: Act now to prevent state-sanctioned murder in the very near future.