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Murder cases congest Clallam court system
by AMANDA WINTERS
Resources on all sides are strained as five murder cases make their way through Clallam County Superior Court.
Before Friday, when Judge Ken Williams ruled to dismiss a first-degree murder charge against Amber Steim, there were six murder cases pending with a seventh already concluded this year.
On May 8, Moises Ramirez-Matias, 25, of Forks, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Jan. 8 slaying of his girlfriend, 18-year-old Laranda Konopaski. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ann Lundwall said she made a plea deal with Ramirez-Matias because pursuing a first-degree murder charge would have required the couple’s 4-year-old daughter to take the stand and testify she saw her father stab her mother to death.
“I talked extensively with the victim’s family about the different issues with the case and they were also extremely concerned and did not want to put the little girl through the trauma of the trial,” she said. “The agreed resolution was to 250 months (in prison) with a plea to Murder 2nd Degree. It was very painful for the victim’s parents and I can only praise them for putting the welfare of their living granddaughter above their heartbreak and desire for vengeance for the death of their daughter.”
After the case was resolved, four remained: that of Bobby Jerrel Smith, of Port Angeles, charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his neighbor; the case of Kevin Ango Bradfield, of Port Angeles, charged with first-degree murder in the strangling of a developmentally disabled woman; the drawn-out Dale Stenson double-murder case from 1993 and Steim’s case.
In June, the court saw two more murder cases added to the docket. On June 3, Patrick Drum, 34, of Sequim, was arrested on suspicion of murdering Jerry Ray and Gary Blanton Jr. because they were registered sex offenders. He faces two charges of aggravated first-degree murder.
Not long after that, Casey Balch, 21, was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Donald Knechtel. Balch is accused of throwing a punch at Knechtel outside a bar, knocking the man backward onto the concrete. Knechtel later died of a serious head injury.
There would be yet another murder case pending in the February 2012 shooting deaths of David Randle, 19, and Ray Varney, 68, but the man believed to have killed them, 45-year-old John Loring, killed himself Feb. 22 as police closed in to make the arrest.
Judge drops murder charge
Steim, 25, originally charged with vehicular homicide in the March 2011 death of Ellen Joan DeBondt on state Highway 112, faced a first-degree murder charge when Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly took over the case earlier this year.
Kelly and Steim’s attorney Ralph Anderson argued in court June 28 over whether or not the murder charge was valid.
Anderson said the first-degree murder charge was grossly exaggerated and did not meet the filing standards set by the state. “It’s a grotesque waste of resources,” he said in a later interview. “It’s an unjustified charge.”
Kelly said Steim was told to stay out of bars and not drink after being convicted of negligent driving 40 days before the crash. She also was told by friends that night she was too drunk to drive, Kelly said.
Ignoring the warning and driving after drinking, on top of violating a court order not to drink, shows extreme indifference, Kelly argued.
Ultimately Williams agreed with Anderson and in a July 6 ruling dismissed the first-degree murder charge, leaving charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and witness tampering.
“The conduct which the state alleges Ms. Steim committed is deplorable,” Williams wrote in his opinion. “If the state can prove the conduct alleged, her actions are clearly criminal. If the state can prove all of its allegations as to her conduct, her actions would constitute vehicular homicide and she should be punished accordingly.”
Balch charge questioned
When Deputy Prosecutor John Troberg charged Balch with second-degree murder, defense attorney Karen Unger objected.
Originally charged with first- and second-degree assault, Troberg filed the murder charge and a first-degree manslaughter charge when Knechtel died 10 days after the fight.
Police said Knechtel was trying to prevent a fight between Balch and another man when he was struck.
According to court minutes, Unger requested Williams not find probable cause to support the second-degree murder charge after handing forward copies of additional police reports.
After reviewing the reports, Williams agreed and did not find probable cause for the more serious charge, though he did allow it to be filed.
Balch pleaded not guilty to the charges and trial is set for Oct. 1.
“Felony murder does not state that the defendant intentionally killed the victim, but rather that the defendant committed the felony of assault in the second degree and in so doing caused the death of the victim,” Troberg said.
Troberg spent 22 years as a defense attorney before switching sides in 2003 at the Stevens County Prosecutor’s Office and coming to Clallam County in 2009. He said he estimates he’s handled 20-25 murder cases.
Williams’ denial of finding probable cause does not have any impact on his filing decision, he said.
In a similar case in a rural Northern California county, a 32-year-old man was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of 31-year-old Adam Martinez, who died after a single punch to the face rendered him unconscious at a Redding bar.
According to a news account in the Record Searchlight, a jury was not able to agree on an involuntary manslaughter conviction and instead found Lennart Schauman guilty of battery with great bodily injury.
Unger did not return a phone call requesting comment.
For the remaining cases, there is no question about the appropriateness of murder charges, Anderson said.
This year alone, five people were killed violently at the hands of others.
Anderson, who practiced as a King County defense attorney for 25 years before coming to Clallam County 12 years ago, has worked on 20 murder cases.
Murder cases are much more complicated than other felony cases and require more money, time and expert witnesses, he said.
Many attorneys require a retainer of $40,000-$75,000 before they will take a murder case and sometimes families will mortgage their house to pay for it, he said. If they cannot afford to pay for the expert witnesses and investigations needed to defend the case, it can become a public expense, he said.
“Expert funds are really short these days given the budgetary constraints of the county,” he said. But the court still will approve the costs if proven necessary to the defense.
Anderson said he thinks the current volume of murder cases in Clallam County is a result of drug abuse, particularly methamphetamine.
“We’re in, for some reason, a very violent time here,” he said.
Kelly said while there have been more high profile cases lately, the numbers aren’t “way off.”
There are normally one or two vehicular homicides per year, which are included in the homicide count, she said.
When compared to other counties close in population, Clallam County is “right there in the pack,” she said.
In the last 3½ years, Clallam County has had 15 homicides, which include vehicular homicides, murders and manslaughter. Chelan County has had 14, Lewis County 14 and Franklin County 16.
Kelly said there are four felony attorneys working in her office, including herself, three of whom are working on murder cases.
As a result of budget cuts, positions remain vacant and there is no extra support staff to bring on during challenging times such as these.
“People put in the hours necessary to get the job done,” she said, simply.
Kelly said her office has had to cut back on filing more minor felony cases. Some are sent to District Court as misdemeanors or referred to the city attorneys.
The felony caseload in general is more complex, she said. In 2008, about 37 percent of the caseload consisted of serious crimes against persons. Now those crimes constitute 47 percent of the caseload.
Like Anderson, Kelly attributes some of this issue to the long-term effects of methamphetamine.
She also said recent court rulings make it more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to get drug cases prosecuted due to rules on searching.
While county departments make painful budget cuts, those court rulings require more resources go to things such as admitting evidence, which is costly, she said.
“I don’t see anybody addressing the issue of how much counties can spend on criminal justice,” she said.
The court system is insatiable and easily could consume the entire county budget, which already allocates 75 percent of the general fund to law and justice, she said, but that would be neither wise nor practical.
As it is, there are not enough resources to file all the cases that come across their desks and their strategy is to limit filings.
“I’d like to see us put ourselves out of business but that’s not going to happen, human nature being what it is,” she said.
On July 13, Kelly will announce whether or not to seek the death penalty against Drum, who is representing himself.
Smith is scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 24 and Bradfield is scheduled to go to trial Aug. 6.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.