State prepares for first inmate execution since 2001

WALLA WALLA — A sturdy metal gurney, topped by a thin foam mattress and backboard, dominates the small chamber that awaits Darold Ray Stenson for his Dec. 3 execution at the Washington state Penitentiary.

Stenson, 55, was convicted of aggravated murder for the 1993 shooting deaths of his wife and a business partner while his three young children slept nearby in his Clallam County farmhouse.

Eight men sit on Washington’s Death Row, but Stenson would be the first inmate put to death since 2001 if none of his pending appeals is granted.

A federal appeals court lifted a stay last month, and prison officials are preparing for the execution to go forward as scheduled. Several walkthroughs have already been conducted, with another still to come next week. The prison also opened the execution chamber to a media tour Thursday as part of the preparations.

In describing Stenson’s mood, prison spokeswoman Joni Aiyeku said he doesn’t seem to believe it’s actually going to happen. The closest Stenson came to being executed previously was in 1998, when a judge granted a stay six weeks before the scheduled date.

Stenson was to have chosen his method of execution — lethal injection or hanging — by Wednesday. But “his choice was to make no choice,” Aiyeku said.

Washington executes inmates by lethal injection when they show no preference.

Since 1904, 77 men have been executed in Washington, the last being James Elledge in August 2001. No woman has ever been sentenced to death in the state.

On his final day, prison officials will transfer Stenson to a tidied holding cell above the execution chamber, where his only visitors will be his attorneys and a member of the clergy. Two guards will sit outside the cell.

No more than 30 minutes before the scheduled 12:01 a.m. execution, guards will escort the inmate down a brightly lit stairwell, through the dim, empty witness gallery and into the execution chamber. They then will secure him to the gurney, built specifically by the prison for this purpose, with black and gold General Motors seatbelts that allow for quick release if needed.

A closed door behind him protects the identity of those mixing the deadly drugs that will be passed through a tiny door in the wall before being injected into Stenson’s arm.

Whether Stenson will resist the execution remains to be seen. He has long claimed he didn’t commit the murders, and is one of just two inmates in recent years to continue to appeal his death sentence.

When Stenson called authorities in 1993 to report the deaths, he suggested that his business partner, Frank Hoerner, had killed Denise Stenson and then shot himself in another room. Prosecutors have said Stenson, struggling financially and in dire business straits, shot the two in order to collect $400,000 in life insurance.

Family members last visited him in 1999.

“We don’t have any indication at this point that he’s going to be resistant,” said Belinda Stewart, communications director for the Department of Corrections.

“I mean, he’s working on his last appeals, but we prepare for that,” she said. “We do everything necessary to carry out the execution as required.”

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