The state Supreme Court issues a stay of execution until a judge rules on whether Olympia's lethal-injection policy violates the law.

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OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the execution of Cal Coburn Brown less than eight hours before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1991 slaying of a Burien woman.

The high court, which has twice before denied Brown’s requests for clemency, based the 5-4 decision on an upcoming review of lethal injection before the Thurston County Superior Court.

Judge Chris Wickham will hear arguments over whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in two other death-penalty cases. The Supreme Court’s decision adds Brown’s case to those to be reviewed by Wickham in May.

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“I am so gratified that the Washington State Supreme Court granted a stay of execution. I think they have done the right thing,” said Suzanne Elliott, one of Brown’s defense lawyers. “I am very glad all of these issues will be fully heard by the court before anyone takes the ultimate action against my client.”

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who had flown to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to witness the execution, said he planned to spend Thursday evening with the family of victim Holly Washa in an attempt to console them.

Brown carjacked Washa, 22, at knife point near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1991 and held her for 34 hours at a motel. The Burien woman was raped, robbed, tortured and slashed to death. Her body was left in her car’s trunk.

“Obviously they’re very frustrated and so am I,” Satterberg said of Washa’s family. “These are issues that could have been raised weeks ago, months ago, years ago.”

Washa’s family had driven to Walla Walla for the execution from Nebraska. They had earlier sent a letter arguing for Brown’s death.

“Please don’t let Cal Brown live after doing this terrible crime,” the family had written. “You would be letting Holly, her family and friends and 12 jurors down if you do.”

Defense lawyers representing Brown, and fellow death-row inmates Darold Stenson and Jonathan Gentry, argue that the drugs used by the state Department of Corrections for lethal injection could constitute cruel and unusual punishment if they don’t work properly. There are also concerns that the drugs are not administered by a physician or a nurse anesthesiologist.

A similar issue had resulted in a de facto moratorium on lethal injection in many states last year after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case of two Kentucky death-row inmates who contended their executions could be carried out more humanely. At question was the three-drug sequence used in Kentucky.

The first drug, a barbiturate, is used for anesthesia. The second drug, pancuronium bromide, paralyzes the muscles with a suffocating effect. The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart and causes death. Opponents argued that searing pain could result if the anesthesia — sodium thiopental — does not work as intended.

By a 7-2 vote last April, the high court ultimately rejected the constitutional attack on lethal injection.

Shortly before 4:30 p.m., the state Supreme Court granted Brown’s motion for discretionary review, less than an hour after the state Clemency and Pardons Board was split 2-2 in ruling on whether Brown, 50, should be executed at 12:01 a.m. today, as scheduled. The decision was forwarded to Gov. Chris Gregoire, but the state Supreme Court’s ruling came before she rendered a decision.

Amanda Lee, a member of the state Clemency and Pardons Board, said Thursday that it wasn’t fair to execute Brown before the lethal-injection concerns were sorted out in court. Lee also believes the state applies the death penalty arbitrarily to cases, a move that keeps women and high-profile murderers like Green River Killer Gary L. Ridgway off death row.

During the clemency board’s hearing, Brown pleaded for his life in a phone call from the state penitentiary. “I cannot begin to say how sorry and ashamed I am for what I did,” Brown said. “God knows I wish I could bring her back.”

Holly Washa’s father, brother and two sisters arrived earlier this week for the execution. Becky Washa, the slain woman’s youngest sister, said during the clemency hearing that the family looked at the execution as a “an opportunity for this to be brought to a conclusion.”

“We don’t have to ever be concerned that he could escape from prison or that any other person would have to go through what my sister went through,” she said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 36-236-8267 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com