That was the decision of a seven-man, five-woman jury on Friday in an aggravated first-degree murder trial that lasted five weeks.
Opel cried and hugged defense lawyers Pete Mazzone and Brian Phillips when Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight read the decision.
"Barbara Opel was found to have committed a terrible act, but it doesn’t mean she’s a terrible person," Phillips said afterward.
Mazzone, who also broke into tears at the verdict’s reading, said tears flowed for him because it was the culmination of "two years of hard work and two years of making decisions when you don’t know it’s the right decision. And somebody’s life depends on it."
Jurors began deliberating late Thursday and spent 71/2 hours until concluding that they could not reach a unanimous decision. All 12 jurors needed to vote for execution to put Opel on death row.
The actual split was not revealed in court, but an alternate juror who talked with reporters said it was her impression that more than half the jurors voted for the death penalty. The juror, Christine Wintch of Arlington, was one of three alternates. None of the alternates participated in finding Opel guilty or deciding her sentence, but they sat through all the testimony in both phases.
The jury convicted Opel April 8 of aggravated murder, theft and abandoning a dependent elderly person. Because prosecutors sought the death penalty, a special sentencing procedure then commenced with the same panel.
Wintch said it was particularly tough on her and the other alternates because she had not been able to discuss the case with anyone, under the judge’s orders. Nor did she have the benefit of discussing it with other jurors during deliberations.
"I don’t know if I ever want to be an alternate juror again," she said.
It’s only a formality, but Knight will sentence Opel to life in prison without the possibility of release on Thursday.
One irony is that Heimann was bludgeoned and stabbed to death on Good Friday 2001. The jury decided Opel’s sentence on Good Friday 2003.
Heimann’s family expressed satisfaction with the result, although members had hoped she would be sentenced to death.
"I’m a little disappointed, but I appreciate what the jury had to go through," son Greg Heimann of Arkansas said. "They put a lot of time into it. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not one I’d want to do."
Heimann was not impressed with the emotion Opel, 39, of Everett showed when she learned her life would be spared.
"She’s a very evil person. She ruined a lot of lives," he said.
Opel was convicted of recruiting five teenagers to kill Heimann, a 64-year-old Boeing Co. retiree, for his money. She promised to pay them money or buy them things. One of the young killers was Heather Opel, the defendant’s then 13-year-old daughter.
All the teenagers have been convicted and will serve long prison sentences. All but one were convicted in adult court.
Opel had been the live-in caregiver for Evelyn Heimann, the victim’s mother, who was left at Heimann’s residence when Opel moved out several days after the murder.
When Knight pronounces the sentence on Thursday, it will be like "the closing of a book," Greg Heimann said. The harm will be felt forever, he added, "but it will be like closing the book on this chapter."
Jerry Heimann’s daughter Kelly Muller of Oregon said she was "kind of disappointed, but I respect the decision."
Prosecutors were satisfied.
"The jury took a good long time deciding this issue on the death penalty. … We appreciate that’s a lot of time, effort and consideration," deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson said.
George Appeal, another deputy prosecutor on the case, said: "The fact of the matter is this was a jury question. It needed to be made by the jury, and it was. We did what we had to do, and the jury evidently did what they had to do."
Prosecuting attorney Janice Ellis said she was "pleased for the Heimann family, that they will be able to experience some level of justice."
Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haleyheraldnet.com.
Opel case timeline
April 13, 2001, Good Friday: Jerry Heimann is ambushed by five teenagers as he walks in his front door. The 64-year-old man is beaten and stabbed, and his body is dumped in an isolated spot on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
April 24, 2001: Prosecutors file criminal charges accusing Barbara Opel of recruiting the teens to kill her boss so she could gain access to nearly $40,000 of his money.
July 11, 2002: Then-prosecuting attorney Jim Krider announces he will seek death for Opel. He said the "total devastation" of the lives of the five teenagers was one of the factors in his decision.
Throughout 2001 and 2002: The five teenagers, the oldest 17 and the youngest just barely 13, are convicted of murder in Heimann’s death. All will receive long prison sentences. All but one case is handled in adult court.
Feb. 26, 2003: The lengthy jury selection begins.
April 8, 2003: Opel is convicted of aggravated murder, theft and abandoning Heimann’s elderly and frail mother. The jury took just six hours to convict her.
April 18, 2003, Good Friday: Two years and a week after the murder, the same jury that found Opel guilty decides that she should spend the rest of her life in prison. The sentencing, merely a formality, is set for Thursday.
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