CENTRALIA -- Convicted killer Phiengchai Sisouvanh was not an average girl living an all-American life.
Yet, that's how a clinical psychologist treated the Kennewick woman when determining her competency in the 2008 murder case, her lawyer argued Thursday.
Michael Iaria of Seattle told the Washington Supreme Court that Sisouvanh is a "lowland Lao national whose culture, native language, religion, ethnicity and refugee experience are well outside the American mainstream."
She was raised in what essentially could be viewed as a concentration camp in Thailand, he said. She was severely beaten and verbally abused, including by her mother, which the defense claims led to a dissociative disorder and signs of post traumatic stress disorder.
But when Randall Strandquist evaluated Sisouvanh during her 15-day inpatient stay at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake, he didn't consider her ethnic and cultural diversity or seek help from qualified colleagues with experience in that area.
Strandquist's "world view is monochromatic, two-dimensional and extraordinarily limited," Iaria said in his appeal briefs to the court.
Sisouvanh, now 27, was charged in Benton County Superior Court with the death of 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.
Sisouvanh was convicted by a jury in October 2010 of aggravated first-degree murder.
In the Superior Court case file and during the trial, she was known as Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong. However, her husband got an annulment in 2008 after the slaying, and her married name later was dropped.
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.
Iaria went before the Supreme Court on Thursday hoping to convince a majority of the nine justices that his client's conviction should be reversed and a new trial granted.
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller was there to counter Iaria's claims and ask the court to keep the conviction in place.
Each side was given 20 minutes to address the justices.
Direct review of Superior Court decisions is granted in limited situations. The question before the high court is if Sisouvanh's competency evaluation was conducted by a "qualified expert or professional person" in accordance with Washington law.
The court heard three cases in a large theater open to the public as part of a two-day road trip to Centralia College. The Herald was the only Tri-City media in Centralia for the arguments.
Iaria contends Strandquist was neither culturally qualified nor competent, which led him to make "gross professional errors," and that Superior Court Judge Robert Swisher violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by choosing Strandquist.
Iaria wanted a "redo" of Sisouvanh's competency evaluation before the trial, but Swisher denied the request.
Swisher found that Sisouvanh understood the nature of the legal proceedings and knew when it was appropriate to "slip into a delusional mode" for evaluators and the court.
On Thursday, Justice Mary Fairhurst pointed out that Sisouvanh was educated in American public schools after moving here at age 7 and got proper credentials to eventually become a nurse's aide without any problems.
Iaria said his client was forced to come to the United States and, even though she may have assimilated, it "doesn't do away with the trauma she experienced in the camps."
Iaria opened his arguments by speaking in his native Italian, and explained that it would be a struggle for most in the courtroom to understand what he was saying. He tried to relate that to Sisouvanh's experience immigrating and why an expert is needed who can understand where she's coming from.
Iaria wants state hospitals to make it a fundamental requirement that psychologists and medical staff look at a defendant's background and assign an appropriate evaluator.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen questioned if the court adopted that stance, when would judges and lawyers know that a culturally competent evaluator should be required in certain cases.
Iaria said it should become part of the standard of care that if the assigned individual does not have that training, they know to consult someone else on the case.
Strandquist found that Sisouvanh does not suffer from a mental disease or mental defect, was pretending to have a mental illness and "clearly knew what happened was wrong."
But Iaria argued that "because of his cultural incompetency, he jumped the diagnostic turnstile."
Prosecutor Miller argued that under the statute, the word "qualified" does not require cultural competence. He said Strandquist was selected by Eastern State Hospital to do the evaluation, and the defense is arguing that the secretary of the state Department of Health and Social Services and the facility "failed the statutory duty" to designate an appropriate person.
Miller said the issue of requiring culturally competent evaluations should be addressed by the Legislature, rather than the court.
And still, "culture" would need to be defined, he said.
"In this case, for example, would it be Lao background or refugee background, or Laos who were also refugees?" Miller posed in his court brief. "In fact, within the Lao culture, there could be subcultures. A rule would need to address how far it would extend."
The conviction should stand because the defense had a Lao psychologist consult with an expert on Sisouvanh's mental competency, and yet Judge Swisher found the defense didn't meet its burden to prove she was incompetent.
Miller also pointed out that under due process, the defense could have requested a second evaluator be appointed but they didn't. Now Iaria is coming to the court three years later and asking the justices to do what Iaria didn't ask of Swisher, he said.
But no matter what, Miller argued it wasn't necessary.
In 2008, Sisouvanh 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 she 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 her 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.
The boy, Salvador, turns 4 next month.
Sisouvanh is serving her life sentence in the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, and wasn't in court Thursday.
The Supreme Court typically takes three to six months to issue a written opinion.