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Convicted killer loses last appeal in state courts

Nearly 15 years after he shot and killed two Island County deputies, Darrin Hutchinson lost his third and final appeal to the Washington state Supreme Court last week.

Yet the 41-year-old Clinton native has a few chances left: He's filed a petition for habeas corpus with the U.S. District Court, which could be appealed to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and even the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, which is well-known and significant in state criminal law, has been a bumpy one for prosecutors. There are five different published court opinions on the case, called Hutchinson I through Hutchinson V.

The facts of the case have always been clear: On November 14, 1987, Hutchinson shot and killed deputies William Heffernan and John Saxerud in the breathalyzer room of the Island County jail, Coupeville. Afterward, he stole a patrol car and abandoned it in a ravine. He was arrested a short time later in his parents' house in Clinton and gave a taped confession.

Hutchinson's murder trial ran into a constitutional snag when his attorney planned a defense of "diminished capacity," which implied Hutchinson suffered from a mental deficiency that made him incapable of forming the intent required to commit murder. But Hutchinson, on the advice of his attorney, refused to participate in a psychiatric evaluation by the prosecution's mental health expert. The defense argued it would violate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The trial judge, and the Supreme Court, ruled that it did not violate his rights, and did not allow Hutchinson's attorneys to put on his "diminished capacity" defense.

In July of 1989, a jury found Hutchinson guilty on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder. The judge, the late Howard Patrick, sentenced him to life in prison a couple of months later.

In the spring of 1997, the Washington State Court of Appeals overturned Hutchinson's conviction, ruling that the defense received an unfair sanction and the jury received erroneous jury instructions during the trial.

But in the fall of 1998, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision and upheld the conviction. Over a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Hutchinson's second appeal.

Most recently, Hutchinson submitted a petition of personal restraint and claimed ineffective representation by counsel. A petition of personal restraint is not a direct appeal, Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks explained, but similar to a lawsuit against the prison system for holding him illegally. It's similar to a writ of habeas corpus.

The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision upholding the conviction. Two justices indicated that they would have granted Hutchinson's appeal and reversed his conviction, based on the argument that Hutchinson's rights were violated in a Supreme Court ruling that was issued while the trial was pending in 1989. All nine of the justices rejected Hutchinson's claim that his attorney was ineffective.

Banks said he would have re-tried Hutchinson if the conviction had been reversed.

"There is simply no question in a case like this. It doesn't matter how much time has passed," he said. "We would have found the witnesses, organized the evidence, and put it together all over again."

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