Victims' relatives outraged by Washington governor's decision to suspend death penalty

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 11, 2014 

Sagastegui execution tour 9/98

Before his execution, prison guards escort triple murderer Jeremy Sagastegui to an interview inside the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on Sept. 1, 1998. Gov. Jay Inslee has suspended further executions in Washington.

BOB BRAWDY

Relatives of two victims of a Benton County murderer were outraged Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee's decision to suspend the state's death penalty.

"It's wrong to do what (Inslee) did. I'd tell him to rethink it," said Cindi Myers, whose daughter and grandson were murdered by Jeremy Sagastegui in 1995.

"Put (Inslee) in our shoes and see what he would do," Myers said. "If this were to happen to his kids, what would he want? Life in prison?"

In November 1995, Sagastegui was babysitting Mellisa Sarbacher's two children, including her son Keiven, 3, in a Finley mobile home. He sexually assaulted, beat, stabbed and drowned Keiven in a bathtub. He then shot and killed Sarbacher, 21, and Lisa Vera-Acevedo, 26, when they returned home. He left Sarbacher's 2-year-old daughter unharmed.

Sagastegui, who acted as his own lawyer, was executed less than three years after the murders. He is the only man from Benton and Franklin counties to be put to death since Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1981.

Former Richland resident Westley Allan Dodd was the first to be executed after the reinstatement. The serial killer and child molester was convicted in Vancouver, Wash., and hanged in 1993 at the Walla Walla prison.

Kennewick attorney Jim Egan, who helped represent Sagastegui, praised Inslee's announcement, saying he thought the decision was made because the costs of death penalty cases are growing too high.

Egan said he understands a death sentence may bring comfort to victims' families, but believes the purpose of the justice system is not to bring closure to people who are suffering.

Egan has been a lawyer in the Tri-Cities since 1977 and has represented many murder suspects. He expects the U.S. will eventually abolish capital punishment.

"The decision takes this state, along with several other states in the country, out of the killing business," Egan said. "There is no rhyme, reason or justification for the government to be in the killing business."

Myers watched along with family members as Sagastegui was executed by lethal injection. The execution brought the family closure. She is upset with Inslee for stripping other victims' families of the choice to see their loved ones' killers put to death.

"They are being robbed," said Myers, who moved out of Washington eight years ago. "At least we got closure from knowing (Sagastegui) is never coming out. He got what he deserved. These families aren't going to get what they deserve. What (Inslee) did was wrong."

Kasie Sarbacher -- who was 19 when her sister was murdered -- agreed that knowing Sagastegui is dead helped her move forward with her life. She was shocked by Inslee's decision and thinks it will hurt victims' families in the long run.

"Why would he do that?" she asked. "(Seeing the execution) does give the victims' family closure and a peace of mind. It should be our choice, not theirs."

Vera-Acevedo's cousin, Karen Southam, said officials should use the death penalty on a case-by-case basis. She declined to give an opinion on Inslee's moratorium.

Vera-Acevedo's family thinks the death penalty was necessary in Sagastegui's case, Southam said in a Facebook message to the Herald.

"There was no doubt as to his guilt or innocence. The death sentence fit the severity of the crime and the proof of his guilt was irrefutable," Southam wrote. "That being said, the reason we are often reluctant to speak of this horrible crime, is that Mr. Sagastegui's mother was also a victim of her son's crime and punishment. His death sentence was very difficult for her to see carried out."

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said the interests of murder victims' families tend to get lost with this type of decision.

"They've already gone through a very long, tortured process, and one of the concerns I have is this is only going to contribute to that," Miller said. "I feel bad for them because this has to be frustrating for them."

Inslee said he and his staff talked to family members, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and former directors of the Department of Corrections with opinions on both sides of the emotional issue.

Yet, Miller and Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant were taken aback by the announcement and said it was the general consensus of their colleagues across the state that they weren't aware of the review.

"Our feeling is that Washington prosecutors have been very careful on the death penalty, and that it's only been asked for in rare circumstances. There's been no issues of anybody who may be innocent, and has ended up on death row in the state of Washington," Miller said.

"The courts have repeatedly held that we are not applying it in a disproportionate manner, and the governor does have a role in the clemency process," he said.

The Tri-City prosecutors pointed out that Washington has a narrower, more conservative death penalty law, which requires them to prove aggravating circumstances in addition to murder. They added that Washington is fortunate to have the sentencing alternative of life without the possibility of release, so convicts end up dying behind bars.

Sant, a Republican, said he is a death penalty proponent who feels it needs to remain an option.

He said he is disappointed by Inslee's across-the-board moratorium because he thinks the system is set up with proper checks and balances, and the state constitution allows Inslee to provide an individual a reprieve or pardon instead of signing a warrant of execution.

Sant said Tuesday's decision tarnishes the Supreme Court's consistent findings that the state's death penalty process protects a defendant's rights, and it sends the message that it's flawed and wrongfully ordering people to death row.

Miller, a Democrat, has mixed feelings.

As a private citizen, if given the option, Miller said he might vote to repeal capital punishment because he doesn't know that it "adds anything."

But on the job, Miller's obligated to enforce the law and has argued for the death penalty, prosecuted it, defended it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and watched the execution, he said.

Ten years after securing Sagastegui's conviction and death sentence, Miller had another triple-murder case in which he seriously considered pursuing the death penalty. He said he went for a guilty plea with a life sentence after giving "great weight" to the wishes of the victims' relatives.

Richard A. Prather admitted slashing the throats of his wife and two young kids inside their Kennewick home in 2005. Julie Prather's parents, especially her ailing father, wanted to avoid reliving the final moments of their loved ones' lives during a trial and the inevitable series of appeals.

"It was very important for (the Prather relatives) to have closure, and they did not want to have an 8- to 10-year appeal process hanging over their heads," Miller said. In Sagastegui's case, "the feeling from both families (of the victims) was even if it would take many, many years, they wanted us to seek and obtain the death penalty."

Sant and Miller question the timing of Inslee's ban because there aren't any cases close to an execution date. The Tri-Cities has no active capital punishment cases.

Sant said he welcomes discussing capital punishment at the state level, but feels the governor has ended that opportunity by already making his decision and moving to engage in the national discussion.

He added that they need to keep the death penalty as a tool for prosecutors, but said if faced with a potential case, he would certainly consider the burden on the victim's family and whether to invest the time, resources and expenses if ultimately there would be a different result in the sentence.

"I think there are certainly things we can improve upon in criminal justice ... but considering all the issues we're facing right now, I didn't see this one coming, quite frankly," Sant said.

Miller said even with the moratorium in place, he won't take the death penalty off the table from consideration if the circumstances of a future case merit it.

"Assuming Gov. Inslee is re-elected in two years, there's no way that the execution would occur within six years. So for any case to happen now, I think the moratorium would be relatively moot," the prosecutor said. "We would go through the same consideration tomorrow that we would have a week ago."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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