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Tuesday, October 13, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sagastegui Put To Death -- State's First Execution By Lethal Injection

Seattle Times Staff: AP

In the end, Jeremy Sagastegui's mother and the court of appeals couldn't save him. And the U.S. Supreme Court and Gov. Gary Locke chose not to.

Sagastegui, 27, died at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla at 12:43 a.m. today, the first person to be executed in the state by lethal injection and only the third executed in the state since the 1960s.

Sagastegui, who never expressed remorse in the three years since he killed a boy and two women, said no last words.

Reporters who witnessed the execution described it this way: After Sagastegui was strapped to a gurney, a medical team hidden in a room behind a two-way mirror pushed buttons to administer the lethal dose of chemicals - thiopental sodium, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - mixed with saline.

Sagastegui took one look at the witnesses, then stared at the ceiling. After a moment he seemed to breathe in quick spasms. His eyelids fluttered. His breathing stopped.

Sagastegui was executed for the November 1995 murders of 3-year-old Keiven Sarbacher; the boy's mother, Mellisa Sarbacher, 21; and her friend, Lisa Vera-Acevedo, 26.

From the time he killed, he said he committed the murders because he knew he would receive the death penalty. And until his mother fought in court, nothing was in the way of Sagastegui's death.

But whether the execution was going to proceed was not known until within a few hours of midnight.

In the end the U.S. Supreme Court and Locke allowed the execution to proceed because they both agreed that Sagastegui was mentally competent and had a right to waive some of his legal rights and that the state had the right to execute him.

The final attempt, a petition to the state Supreme Court by lawyers for Sagastegui's mother, was rejected shortly before midnight.

Sagastegui was baby-sitting two children in a mobile home in Finley, east of Kennewick, when the boy awoke and started crying. Sagastegui raped and then drowned the boy. Then he found a rifle and waited two hours before the mother arrived home. He shot her to death and also shot her friend.

The following day, police arrived at an apartment in Kennewick, and Sagastegui gave them his bloody clothes, the rifle and the keys to Sarbacher's truck, which he had stolen. He immediately confessed.

What made his case unusual is that Sagastegui acted as his own lawyer, never presented a defense, never introduced any details of his personal history or called any witnesses on his behalf.

Benton County Superior Court ordered him evaluated for his mental competency, and the proceedings began. He pleaded guilty and was convicted by a jury in 1996 and sentenced to death. He waived his right to appeal.

Because Sagastegui was a "volunteer" who never fought his death sentence, the case sped through the system. The state Supreme Court did its mandatory review of the case in April 1998. Sagastegui urged them to let him die. The court upheld his conviction and sentence.

Last month his mother, Cayetana "Katie" Vargas, stepped in and fought for Sagastegui, presenting the picture of a man she said had been repeatedly sexually and physically abused as a child.

Vargas argued that her son suffered serious mental disorders. She wanted a stay of execution. Her requests were the first time a third party had sought legal standing as "next friend" in a Washington capital-punishment case.

Sagastegui's case became his mother fighting the state, with each side presenting its own medical experts arguing whether Sagastegui was, or was not, mentally competent.

At each turn, Sagastegui filed declarations to the court saying he was sane and competent and that the execution should proceed.

Vargas made her requests to the state Supreme Court and then to the U.S. District Court. Both refused her petitions. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard her case and said in a 2-1 decision that she had provided meaningful evidence that raised doubts about her son's competency.

The court granted a stay and ordered the case back to the trial court in Benton County and to the state Supreme Court, and that a new hearing be held to determine whether Sagastegui was competent.

Sagastegui's execution was put on hold. But the state Attorney General's Office immediately appealed the decision to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, asking the court to lift the stay. Yesterday, she referred the case to the full court, and last night the court voted 7-2 to lift the stay, with Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissenting.

Locke had been petitioned by Vargas to commute her son's sentence. Last week, the state Clemency and Pardons Board split 2-2 on forwarding a clemency recommendation to the governor.

The governor waited until after the Supreme Court ruled before announcing his decision last night.

"It has been said that Jeremy Sagastegui wishes to commit suicide by doing nothing to fight for his life," Locke said in his statement. "It is therefore implied that a `normal person' would not proceed this way and that the state is assisting in his suicide. That's preposterous.

"We should not expect cold-blooded murderers to hold the same sanctity for life - including their own - that we do."

Meanwhile, Sagastegui ate his last meal: pizza, fries, corn, jellied fruit salad, ice cream and an eclair.

Candise Myers, Kasie Sarbacher and Robert Getz, relatives of Sagastegui's victims, witnessed the execution. Although Sagastegui had requested that his mother be a witness, no member of his family attended.

Outside the prison, about 100 death-penalty opponents prayed silently in a fenced area downhill from the prison. About 50 death-penalty advocates in another area 50 feet away had already left the prison grounds by the time Sagastegui died.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on the death penalty in 1976, Washington state had had two previous executions - Westley Allan Dodd in 1993 and Charles Rodman Campbell in 1994, both by hanging. In 1996, the Legislature changed state law to make lethal injection the primary form of execution.

Death-penalty foes said Sagastegui was allowed to manipulate the legal system.

"Serious questions were raised all along the way," said Sheryl Gordon McCloud, a Seattle attorney who helped represent Vargas. "There is such a problem with volunteers because it allows the system to run amok. It does away with all the checks and balances."

The victims' family members left the execution quietly this morning, comforting each other.

"I feel a lot better now I know it is done," said Kasie Sarbacher, 22, Mellisa Sarbacher's sister.

Myers said she is glad it is over.

"My daughter and my grandson are finally at peace," she said. "Justice has been done. It's not vindictive. It needed to be done for closure for us."

Seattle Times staff reporters Florangela Davila and David Postman contributed to this report. Information from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin was also used.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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