At 8:30 a.m. this morning, Dr. Louis C. Chen was arraigned in King County Superior Court on two counts of aggravated murder in the first degree for the stabbing deaths of his partner, 29-year-old Eric Cooper, and their surrogate son, 2-year-old Cooper Chen. He pleaded not guilty. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg now has 90 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty in Chen's case.
Dr. Louis Chen.
According to Chapter 10.95.040 of the Revised Code of Washington, the death penalty is the fitting punishment for first-degree murder cases unless "there is reason to believe that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency." If the death penalty is shelved, Chen could still face life in prison.
So does Chen's case include "mitigating circumstances" that would "merit leniency" from the court? On one hand, he is a respected physician--an endocrinologist trained at Duke and the University of Chicago, who had just landed a job at Virginia Mason Medical Center--with no history of violence. On the other hand, authorities believe he stabbed Cooper more than 100 times using five different knives. (Click here to read a detailed account of his alleged crime.)
State law specifically singles out murders involving the killer's "family or household members" as qualifying for the death penalty, but only if "the person had previously engaged in a pattern or practice of three or more of the following crimes committed upon the victim within a five-year period." Chen's record is clean, but domestic-violence experts say it's possible that unreported abuse occurred in Chen and Cooper's relationship.
It will be a difficult decision, to say the least, for Satterberg, and as of this morning he is on the clock. State law says he has 30 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty, but Chen's attorneys requested that the deadline be extended an extra 60 days. That means Satterberg now has until November 27. Chen's next court appearance is a scheduling hearing on September 12.
Since 1904, 78 people have been executed in Washington, according to the Department of Corrections. The most recent case was Cal Brown in 2010, who received a lethal injection for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Holly Washa in King County in 1991. Eight others are currently on death row in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Jon Repp via Twitter Dr. Louis Chen during his court appearance this morning in Seattle.
Critics of the death penalty contend that the ultimate punishment is too often applied to innocent men (read about the remarkable work of the Innocence Project) and disproportionately meted out to people of color. In Washington, according to the DOC, 66 Caucasians have been executed, along with seven blacks, two Asians, two Hispanics, and one Eskimo. The state also lists the occupation of each person executed, and by far the leading profession is "laborer." (One wonders what happened in the case of Arley Ovoyd Lewis, a 29-year-old musician executed in 1941.)
The death penalty has a contentious history in Washington. It was abolished in 1913, reinstated in 1919, and abolished again in 1975. That same year, a statewide referendum again reinstated the death penalty, but a pair of Supreme Court rulings on cases from other states made the law unconstitutional. Eventually, the Washington State Supreme Court declared the state's death penalty law unconstitutional on the grounds that a person who pleaded not guilty could be sentenced to death, while someone who pleaded guilty for the same crime would receive life in prison. The current law, enacted in 1981, fixed that particular loophole.