On May 6, 1904, the State of Washington carries out its first execution. Zenon "James" Champoux is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla for the murder of Lottie Brace in Seattle on November 5, 1902. Executions prior to this were held in public in the counties where the defendant was convicted. Champoux is the first of 78 prisoners who will be executed at the state penitentiary between 1904 and 2010, when Cal Brown becomes the last person executed in Washington before the state supreme court invalidates the death penalty in 2018.
Taken to the Scaffold
The Washington Territorial Legislature first enacted a death penalty statute in 1854. In 1901, the state legislature amended the statute to require that executions take place at the state penitentiary.
Zenon Champoux was a 26-year-old French Canadian prospecting in Alaska when he met entertainer Lottie Brace, age 18. Brace promised to marry Champoux, then she left for Spokane and Seattle. She found employment "working as a dance hall girl below the line [south of Yesler Way]" (Star). Champoux found Brace at the Arcade variety theater with her sister Ella. When Brace rejected his advances, he stabbed her in the temple with his knife in front of witnesses. She died later that day.
A King County jury did not accept his plea of insanity and convicted him of her murder. The judge sentenced him to death. Press reports of the day describe Champoux as speaking only broken English and exhibiting strange behaviors such as insisting on eating only raw meat and vegetables. Champoux said to fellow inmates that if Brace would not love him in this world, he would force her to love him in the next.
According to press reports, Champoux was awakened at 4:00 a.m. when he exchanged his prison stripes for a new black suit. After praying with a Catholic priest, he was taken to the scaffold and he mounted the steps unassisted and positioned himself over the drop. He made no statement and his only expression of emotion was a tear (or crying, depending on the report) while reading scripture on the platform. Although Champoux was described as dying instantly from the drop, his heart did not stop beating for 17 minutes.
Champoux was the first of two men executed at the Walla Walla penitentiary in 1904, followed by Charles Clarke, convicted in Thurston County, on September 2. Thirteen more were executed between 1905 and 1911. Then the state legislature abolished the death penalty in 1913. Legislators enacted the penalty again in 1919, with the next execution occurring in 1921. Executions occurred fairly regularly over the next four decades until Joseph Chester Self, convicted in King County, was executed on June 20, 1963. Self was the 73rd defendant executed by the state and the last for three decades. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out all existing death penalty laws in 1972, and it was years before the state enacted a new death penalty law that passed court scrutiny, and then more years for the lengthy appeals by then required in such cases.
Westley Allan Dodd, convicted of murdering two children in Clark County, became the 74th executed by the state when he was hanged on January 5, 1993. Charles Rodman Campbell was executed the following year, Jeremy Sagastegui in 1998, and James H. Elledge in 2001. On September 10, 2010, Cal Coburn Brown became the 78th person executed by the State of Washington, and the last as of 2018, when the state supreme court invalidated the death penalty. All 78 of those executed by the state between 1904 and 2010 were male, ranging in age from 17 (Walter Dubuc in 1932) to 63 (Frederick Johns in 1911).
In its ruling, announced on October 11, 2018, the court held unanimously that Washington's "death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner" (State v. Gregory). As a result of that ruling, the sentences of the eight men then on Washington's death row were converted to life in prison without possibility of parole.