State attorney general: Stenson's days numbered; prescription drug abuse also a concern
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Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna speaks during a visit to Port Angeles on Wednesday. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES -- Rob McKenna is pressing firmly for the death penalty for convicted Sequim double- murderer Darold Stenson and paying close attention to the rise of prescription drug abuse on the Peninsula and beyond, the state attorney general said Wednesday.

In a 15-minute interview with the Peninsula Daily News, McKenna said "the end is within sight" for Stenson and two other death row inmates who plan to appeal a recent court ruling that lethal injection is not cruel punishment.

"We believe that we'll prevail," McKenna said of Stenson's appeal to the state Supreme Court.


Top legal officer

McKenna is the top legal officer for state government. He directs 500 attorneys.

The Bellevue Repubican was re-elected to a second four-year term last November.

The state's 17th attorney general has four associates in his Port Angeles office near the ferry terminal. The purpose of his Wednesday visit was to talk with them and to meet with individual officials.

"The reason that we have an office in Port Angeles is that we have a lot of cases in Clallam County and Jefferson County, and our team here handles those case," McKenna said.

"Most of those are children's cases. That's the big priority -- cases involving abused and neglected kids. That's the main work that we do."

Stenson, 56, was convicted in 1994 for the 1993 shooting deaths of his wife and business partner at his exotic bird farm outside of Sequim.

A week prior to his second scheduled execution last December, Stenson was granted separate stays of execution -- one in Clallam County Superior Court and one in U.S. District Court.


More testing needed

His lawyers argued in Clallam County that more DNA testing was needed because a new witness stepped forward saying Stenson had been framed.

On the other legal front, Stenson and two other death row inmates -- Cal Coburn Brown, who tortured and killed a Burien woman; and Jonathan Gentry, who killed a 12-year-old girl in Kitsap County -- said lethal injection violates the state constitution because it is cruel.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham on July 10 dismissed that claim.

The state Supreme Court has never ruled on lethal injection under the state prohibition on cruel punishment, McKenna said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has upheld the use of lethal injection.

"The judge in Thurston County went ahead and ruled on the federal issue anyway, which was nice," McKenna said.

"It was a bonus."

All three death row inmates chose lethal injection over hanging.

"The whole point of lethal injection is a humane form of execution," McKenna said.

"So we believe we'll prevail. But of course, it is very frustrating, especially for the families of the victims, to see the endless appeals and delays.

"Still, we're making progress, and I think the end is within sight for Stenson as well as Cal Brown and Gentry."


Prescription drugs

Ron Cameron, commander of the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, has said that narcotic-based prescription painkillers like OxyContin have "steadily been on the rise in the last three years, maybe a little longer."

"It's not like anything we've really dealt with in the past," Cameron said in an earlier interview.

McKenna is leading the fight against prescription drug abuse at the state level, and the recently elected vice president of the National Association of Attorneys General wants to broaden the campaign.

"We're making prescription drug abuse a central priority of the national association," McKenna said.

"The rise of prescription drug abuse in Clallam County tracks what we're seeing statewide and nationally . . . It is astounding how fast the number of deaths has gone up in the last five years, so we're very focused on it."

Prescription drug overdoses kill more people than all illegal drugs combined, and in Washington state, they kill more people than car wrecks.

"This has come up on us tremendously fast," McKenna said.

"When I was a new attorney general, we were working intently on methamphetamine addiction, because we were seeing so many children affected by it and so many meth labs."

In 2001, Washington was second in the country for prevalence of meth labs. About 2,000 were found in 2001 compared with 50 last year.

"We still have meth around, but we've really made a lot of progress on it," McKenna said.

"Meanwhile, the amount of prescription medicine being prescribed in our state has shot up. There's three times as much OxyContin being prescribed as there was 10 years ago. There's five times more Methadone being prescribed as there was 10 years ago."

McKenna said people are dying from these drugs in increasing numbers for three main reasons:

• Today's drugs are more powerful. OxyContin is up to 40 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl, which was developed as a hospice drug for end-stage cancer patients, is 80 times more powerful than morphine, McKenna said.

• People are using the drugs inappropriately. "If you take a time-release medicine like an OxyContin pill, and you grind it up and you snort it, smoke it or swallow it, you bypass the time release protection and the entire blast is delivered to your central nervous system at one time," McKenna said.

• The combination of different drugs, including alcohol, is deadly. "I often use the high-profile examples of people like Heath Ledger, the Hollywood star who died with five different prescription drugs in his blood -- two narcotics, two sedatives and a sleep aid," McKenna said.

"It was probably the OxyContin and the Xanax -- Xanax being a powerful barbiturate -- that slowed his breathing down until his heart stopped. So people are dying because they're mixing these drugs," he said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 29. 2009 11:56PM
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