"Court To Hear Mother's Appeal -- Murderer Jeremy Sagastegui Insists He Wants To Be Put To Death, But Now Others Are Stepping In To Plead His Case"


Seattle Times
Florangela Davila, Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The case of Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui, who is to be executed Oct. 13, has been one of the fastest to move through the courts, largely because he wants to die.

The day after he killed 3-year-old Keiven Sarbacher, the boy's mother, Mellisa Sarbacher, and Lisa Vera-Acevedo in a small town east of Kennewick, he confessed to police. He insisted on acting as his own attorney and pleaded guilty. He presented no evidence that he should receive anything less than the death penalty.

He refused all avenues of appeal. He urged everyone - Benton County prosecutors, the jury, even the state Supreme Court - to kill him. In an interview this summer, he said the Nov. 19, 1995, murders were his way of committing suicide. Earlier this week, in a statement to the Supreme Court, he again said he wanted his execution to proceed.

But now his mother, represented by two attorneys who have been successful in removing people from death row, are fighting for Sagastegui's life and asking that the execution be delayed.

Katie Vargas is asking the state Supreme Court to let her step in and fight for her son because, she says, he is mentally incompetent.

The nine Supreme Court justices are scheduled to meet tomorrow to consider the request. A decision is expected early, attorneys say, because the execution date is only two weeks away.

At tomorrow's meeting, the court is being asked to review documents that say Sagastegui has long been suicidal, that he suffers from a serious mental disease and that he was repeatedly sexually abused as a child - the first time such details of Sagastegui's life have been presented in court.

The state Clemency and Pardons Board on Monday heard similar testimony from Vargas, who is urging the board to recommend to Gov. Gary Locke that he spare her son's life. The five-member board decided it would not make a recommendation until after the Supreme Court justices had met.

In her petition to the court, Vargas is being represented by Seattle attorneys Todd Maybrown and Sheryl Gordon McCloud.

Maybrown represented Mitchell Rupe, who shot to death two bank tellers in Olympia. Rupe's death sentence has twice been set aside. McCloud represents Brian Keith Lord, who murdered a 16-year-old Poulsbo girl but whose death sentence was overturned last year.

McCloud has never met Sagastegui, and she said she doesn't necessarily think he should not be executed. The point, she explained, is that this is an exceptional case involving someone who wants to commit suicide and, thus far, has gotten his way. The correct legal process, she said, hasn't been followed.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court reviewed the case, as it does all death-penalty cases.

At the time, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued Sagastegui's background hadn't been considered by a jury before the death sentence was handed down. The group, concerned that Sagastegui's case would affect future death-penalty cases, urged the court to appoint special counsel to find and present some evidence in Sagastegui's background that might show he deserved leniency.

But in April, the Supreme Court justices noted that Sagastegui had volunteered to them that "I got a thrill out of the killing." The justices said if there were ever a case that deserved the death penalty, this was it.

Tomorrow, those same justices are essentially being asked, among other things, to consider the same point: to take a look at Sagastegui's background, specifically his mental competency, before deciding on his execution.

But this time, the justices have been presented with affidavits by family and friends. Katie Vargas, in her affidavit, says that Sagastegui was conceived because she was raped, that Sagastegui was raped at age 7, that he talked of suicide since the age of 14, and that he has multiple personalities and heard voices before the three murders.

In another document, a clinical psychology professor who reviewed a medical report, says it's possible that Sagastegui suffers from multiple personalities.

All of which, Vargas' attorneys argue, make it necessary to at least delay the execution.

Sagastegui's mental competency was, in fact, already evaluated, back when proceedings began in Benton County Superior Court. He was found competent.

But that evaluation, McCloud said, was made without having the benefit of these affidavits.

In court, it was up to Sagastegui to present his own personal history, to point out factors in his life that might merit leniency, to call friends or family to speak in his behalf. From the beginning, Sagastegui wanted nothing about his past revealed.

Vargas is asking the court to recognize her as "next friend," as someone who is close to the defendant and has his best interests in mind; and as someone needed because the defendant is incompetent. Such a petition has never been heard in Washington except at the federal level, McCloud said.

As "next friend," Vargas has petitioned for a stay of the execution, which, McCloud says, if granted, could delay the execution for at least 120 days. Attorneys also want to make several challenges on Sagastegui's behalf: pointing out 11 mistakes they say were made by Benton County prosecutors. At the very least, attorneys say, they should be given one year to put that appeal together.

"I'm not saying we let a triple murderer off," McCloud said. "The question is whether he should be killed when you know about his horrendous life."

On Monday, Sagastegui filed a declaration to the court saying he is competent and sane and that he opposes everything his mother is doing.

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