Phiengchai Sisouvanh will spend the rest of her life in prison for killing a pregnant Pasco mother and claiming the baby as her own after the state's highest court Thursday rejected arguments that her competency evaluation wasn't done by a qualified expert.
The Washington Supreme Court's nine justices, in a unanimous opinion, upheld Sisouvanh's conviction for the 2008 Kennewick crime.
The decision was released five months after the high court heard arguments from defense lawyer Michael Iaria of Seattle and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller.
Iaria sought to get his client's aggravated first-degree murder conviction reversed and a new trial granted.
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Sisouvanh, 27, is serving her life sentence in the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.
Iaria represented Sisouvanh through the trial phase and stayed with the case on appeal, skipping the Washington Court of Appeals and filing directly to the state's high court. Dan Arnold of Richland was his co-counsel at trial.
Direct review of Superior Court decisions is granted in limited situations.
The question before the justices was whether Randall Strandquist, an Eastern State Hospital clinical psychologist, failed to conduct his evaluation in a qualified manner because he opted not to learn more about Sisouvanh's Laotian background and culture.
Justice Steven C. Gonzalez, who wrote the 18-page opinion, said the record shows the trial court concluded the evaluation was done properly.
"The court-appointed expert who evaluated Sisouvanh reasonably explained the propriety of the tests he administered and his interpretation of Sisouvanh's behavior, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by accepting the expert's examination and report as having been conducted in a qualified manner sufficient to satisfy (Washington law)," the opinion stated.
Gonzalez acknowledged there is a "glaring omission in the record" before the Supreme Court since Strandquist's competency report was not entered into the official file at the trial level and therefore was not included in appellate documents.
Iaria, reached Thursday, would not comment on the opinion or say what, if any, steps he could take next.
In his May 10 arguments, Iaria claimed Sisouvanh was not an average girl living an all-American life, yet that's how the psychologist treated her when determining she was competent to stand trial.
Strandquist failed to consider Sisouvanh's ethnic and cultural diversity or seek help from qualified colleagues with experience in that area, Iaria told the court.
He said Sisouvanh was raised in what essentially could be viewed as a concentration camp in Thailand and was severely beaten and verbally abused, all of which led to a dissociative disorder and signs of post traumatic stress disorder.
Sisouvanh's trial was held in Benton County Superior Court and was presided over by Judge Robert Swisher.
Sisouvanh had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity, with the defense in trial saying she lived in a fantasy land and was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong because of the years of childhood abuse.
However, a jury in October 2010 dismissed her insanity claims and convicted her of killing Araceli Camacho Gomez -- a Pasco woman who was stabbed 47 times before her nearly full-term baby was cut from her womb.
The baby boy survived, but Camacho Gomez's body was found early June 28, 2008, at Kennewick's Columbia Park.
Miller said his office shared the news Thursday with the victim's husband, Juan Campos Gomez.
"He was very appreciative again to the community and everybody," he said. The father also told Miller that all three of his children are doing well and that Salvador, now 4, "does not seem to be suffering from any effects of the tragic birth."
Sisouvanh -- who at the time was married with the last name of Synhavong -- had told her family she was pregnant and claimed to be 10 days overdue when she met the 27-year-old victim at a bus stop, where Camacho Gomez was waiting with her two children.
Sisouvanh made plans later to get Camacho Gomez alone by offering to give her some baby clothes. Once they were inside her car, Sisouvanh pulled off Highway 240 in Kennewick and attacked the mother with a knife.
Sisouvanh planned to claim it was her baby after she called 911 for help, but emergency room doctors soon determined she was not the baby's mother.
Judge Swisher, in ruling before trial that Sisouvanh was competent, said she understood the nature of the legal proceedings and knew when it was appropriate to "slip into a delusional mode" for evaluators and the court.
Iaria had sought to get a "redo" on the state's evaluation, but Swisher denied the request.
Iaria later argued Strandquist made "gross professional errors" because he was not culturally qualified or competent and said Swisher violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by choosing Strandquist.
Justice Gonzalez, in the opinion, said Strandquist could have "learned more about Sisouvanh's cultural background had he deemed it appropriate or necessary," but the psychologist simply found such steps were unnecessary.
There might be cases where the Supreme Court finds the trial court abused its discretion by accepting a competency evaluation when an otherwise qualified expert "fails to reasonably account for the need for cultural competence," Gonzalez wrote.
"But this is not such a case," he concluded.
The opinion pointed to clear signs of malingering by Sisouvanh while in the state mental health facility, along with her "acculturation" since she came to the United States at age 5, spoke English as a primary language and obtained certification as a nursing assistant.
"I felt very comfortable with the procedure and decision by Judge Swisher in this case," Miller told the Herald. "But it is something the Supreme Court is saying we (prosecutors and state hospitals) need to probably watch out for in the future if there is a different set of facts."
Miller he was happy with Thursday's decision.
"The Supreme Court, they didn't have to take review on it. So whenever the Supreme Court takes a case it makes you nervous because they reverse half of the decisions they choose to hear," he said. "So we were worried, but we thought we did a good job at the trial court level making a record."
"This is the big one because they bypassed the Court of Appeals, so their appeal is over. The options after this would be very limited," he added.
The defense could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case to review any federal constitutional issues. It has 90 days to do that.
The defense also could challenge the conviction and seek release from imprisonment by filing a personal restraint petition in a state court or petitioning the federal court for a writ of habeas corpus.