Conviction of woman who cut baby from womb upheld

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the conviction of a Kennewick woman who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a pregnant Pasco mom and cutting her baby from the womb.

In a unanimous decision, the high court rejected Phiengchai Sisouvanh’s claim that the court-appointed expert who conducted her competency evaluation did not properly take into account her cultural background as a Laotian immigrant.

Sisouvanh was convicted of aggravated murder for the 2008 death of 27-year-old Araceli Camacho Gomez, whom Sisouvanh had met and offered to give spare baby clothes. Court records say that Sisouvanh drove Gomez to a highway turnout, stabbed her and then took her to another location where she cut open her abdomen and removed the baby. She tried to pass the infant boy off as her own in calls made to emergency dispatchers. The baby survived and is being raised by his father in Pasco.

Before her trial, Sisouvanh was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation at Eastern State Hospital. She is currently serving out her sentence at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

Dr. Randall Strandquist found that Sisouvanh, who came to the United States when she was 5 years old, was socially active in high school, graduated and then was credentialed as a nursing assistant by the state Department of Health in 2005. He “judged her to be substantially acculturated to the United States,” the justices wrote and determined that further investigation and research on her culture was not necessary for this case.

After observations by Eastern hospital staff, the results of multiple diagnostic tests and a formal forensic interview, Strandquist found her competent to stand trial. Sisouvanh pleaded innocent by reason of insanity but was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in 2010 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“Sisouvanh has not shown that Dr. Strandquist’s basis for deciding not to seek out further cultural information and deciding to rely on Western-based diagnostic tests was unreasonable or contrary to the prevailing norms of the mental health field,” the high court wrote.

The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Steven Gonzalez ruled that Strandquist’s competency exam was done in a qualified manner and that he “reasonably accounted for cultural competency in his examination.”

A message left with Sisouvanh’s attorney was not returned Thursday.

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