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Capital Punishment Trials Open Wounds For Family Members

Convicted double murderer Darold Stenson was to be executed last week at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary in Washington.

Stenson is alive because federal and state courts issued temporary stays of execution. But last week the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the federal stay on the execution. As the case goes forward in state court, the Washington State Attorney General's Office says it plans to fight to carry out Stenson's death sentence.

In the first installment of a three-part series — State of Execution — KUOW's Patricia Murphy examines two executions through the eyes of the victims' relatives.

The framed photos on Peggi Hendrickson's coffee table look like any family's holiday snapshots until they're put into context.

Peggi Hendrickson: "This is my mother and that was taken the Christmas before she was murdered."

On April 14th 1982 Charles Campbell walked away from an Everett work-release facility. Six years earlier, Campbell had raped Renae Wicklund after holding a knife to the throat of her then 18-month old daughter Shanna.

After the crime, Wicklund fled with her daughter to Peggi's mother's house. Barbara, Peggi's mom, later testified during the trial that sent Campbell to prison for 40 years. But now he was freed, intent on getting revenge.

He went to Renae Wicklund's home and murdered Renae and her daughter. Then he killed Barbara.  The murders were vicious. When the police arrested Campbell, they found one earring from each of his victim's in his pocket. 

Peggi Hendrickson: "He had lived his life brutalizing people. You bother me I will hurt you worse. That was his creed"

In December of that year Campbell was sentenced to death for the murders.

For the survivors who are already grieving the violent death of a loved one, the realities of a capital trial can be overwhelming.

Mark Roe: "This will be over no time soon."

Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Roe has tried many murder and death penalty cases. In those first meetings with family members, Roe is honest about what's ahead.

He tells them that they will relive the tragedy over and over in the courtroom, through witness testimony, crime scene photos, and coroner reports. They will hear the defense try to make the person who may have murdered their loved one sound like an ok guy.

Mark Roe: "And we have to tell them that it is very unlikely that even if a jury returns with a death verdict that this person will actually be executed"

There have been 19 death penalty reversals in Washington since 1981. Most offenders are now doing life without parole. Charges were dismissed against one man for having ineffective counsel. 

In addition, capital cases are costly. They can drag on for years.

Seeing Campbell during the trial only added to the Hendrickson family's pain.

Peggi Hendrickson: "And when he sat in the courtroom he would draw things like hangman's nooses and little gravestones. And he would hold them up so we could see them. It was like it was all a joke to him. It was just a joke."

The stress of the ordeal had a ripple effect. Peggi's marriage ended. Her father Don, who'd discovered the crime scene, began to drink. It eventually killed him.

Peggi Hendrickson: "We were all living in the same limbo…the same mental and physical agony as the aftermath of the murders."

Campbell fought his execution. But not all of Washington's condemned do. Since 1981 three of the four men who've been executed here actually requested they be put to death. This troubles death penalty opponents, who say it amounts to state-assisted suicide.

In one case, janitor James Elledge strangled then stabbed 47-year-old Eloise Fitzner after luring her and a friend to the Lynwood church where he worked. Elledge hid Fitzner's body, then kidnapped and assaulted the friend. Then he let her go.

Elledge turned himself in, he'd already served time for beating a Seattle motel owner to death with a hammer in 1975.

Prosecutor Mark Roe says it wasn't long before Elledge confessed and asked to be executed.

Mark Roe: " I think he honestly felt that he believed he deserved to die for   what he had done. And as despicable as the acts were that he had perpetrated I will give him some sliver of respect for the fact that he knew it. Hell, I agreed with him."

Eloise Fitzner's brother, Michael Helland, was still reeling from the details of his sister's murder when Mark Roe asked for his input.

If they went along with Elledge's offer to confess in exchange for the death penalty, they would avoid a lengthy trial. Still, it was not a decision that Hellund wanted to be a part of.

Michael Helland: "I felt like if we said oh no we don't want you to put him to death they would have had no choice but to go for the life sentence. There was a perverse part of me that said, well, lets give him what he doesn't want, which is life in prison"

Helland says his sister was a good woman, who always reached out to the less fortunate. They shared a strong Christian faith.

He was deeply conflicted over the role he had been thrust into during the trial — evoking Eloise's memory to convince a jury that Elledge should die.

Michael Helland: "I knew the more sympathetic story I could think up the more likely they were to go along with the process. It was hard and I don't know just kind of unfair. "

For Peggi Hendrickson and her family, as excruciating as the trial was, there was no conflict around the prosecutor's decision to pursue death. The sheer brutality of the murders made it clear. Campbell felt no remorse.

Peggi Hendrickson: "This isn't someone who is at all sorry for what he's done. Therefore, we were resolved to see the sentence carried out. His own mother told the prosecutors he needed to die. His own mother. "

In Washington, the condemned have two choices for the method of execution. Lethal injection is the default, or you can be hanged. Charles Cambell wanted to hang.

But it took twelve years. Two days before his first scheduled execution, the 9th Circuit court issued Campbell a stay. Two years later, he had another date.  Peggi's father and brother were there.

Peggi Hendrickson: "They wanted him to see that they were there. But what was true is that the area where they do the hanging, it was screened off. So no one really saw anything. And Campbell never really saw the people that were standing up for the victims. But it was something that they needed to do. To honor her, well to honor all of them."

After the execution of her mother's killer, Peggi says she collapsed. She cried nonstop. Physically depleted, she didn't get off the couch for three days.

Peggi said it was as if all of the emotion and trauma that had been building in the twelve years since her mother's death were released.

The whole family agreed on one thing.  That Campbell's death meant that the world was a safer place. Peggi and her brother also noted something else after the execution.

Peggi Hendrickson: "Colors are brighter. Somehow our systems were so shutdown or impacted that whatever happened when that was gone. Colors were brighter. And both of us noticed this."

Hendrickson says the family has had to move on, but with a new appreciation for the fragility of life. Her new mission is to honor her mother by living like she did — with love and integrity.

Michael Helland didn't go to the prison the morning James Elledge was lethally injected. Instead, he stayed close to his ailing mother who died soon after.

It's been seven years since the execution.

Helland says he doesn't think about Elledge much. And though he believes his sister is in a better place, he finds little comfort in the way things worked out. 

Helland still has questions about what really happened to Eloise that night. Then there was Elledge's mea culpa in the courtroom.

Michael Helland: "He said he that was sorry for the pain he had caused her family. But he did not say he was sorry he did it."

Admitting remorse for the pain but not the cause of the pain is an important distinction to Helland because of his faith. Especially since Elledge made it clear that he believed God had forgiven him for what he had done.

Helland still struggles with the notion of forgiving his sister's killer. He might want to, but it always comes back to Elledge's imprecise courtroom statement.

Helland will never be sure exactly what he meant. That troubles him. Hellend says it would have been easier if Elledge had just said he was sorry.

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