Corrections officer’s killing wasn’t planned, defense argues

EVERETT — Jayme Biendl worked behind brick walls, locked gates and fences topped with razor wire.

Each day she stood watch over hundreds of men whose freedom was forfeited. Like her fellow corrections officers, her job was to keep the inmates safe and also to keep them behind the walls to protect the community.

“For every person who is there it’s fair to assume they share one daily wish,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern said.

At the end of the day, they all just want to be able to come home.

Jayme Biendl was no different, he said.

“On Jan. 29, 2011, she didn’t get to go home because of that man — Byron Eugene Scherf,” Stern said.

The veteran deputy prosecutor spent nearly an hour on Wednesday outlining the case against Scherf, the inmate accused of strangling Biendl, 34, inside the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.

Prosecutors allege that Scherf, 54, planned to kill the Granite Falls woman, taking multiple steps to guarantee that he would be alone with her in one of the few places in the prison without any surveillance cameras.

The convicted rapist was serving a life sentence at the time of the killing. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

After being sworn in by Superior Court Judge George Appel, the jury heard opening statements. The trial is expected to last weeks.

If Scherf is convicted of aggravated murder, jurors then will be asked to decide whether prosecutors proved that there aren’t any reasons to show him mercy.

Biendl’s parents and siblings sat shoulder-to-shoulder on courtroom benches Wednesday morning — more than two years after learning she wasn’t coming home again. They have told prosecutors they want Scherf executed.

On Wednesday, Scherf’s defense attorney Jon Scott did not dispute that his client killed Biendl. Scherf confessed to police in the days after Biendl was found with an amplifier cord wrapped around her neck. Jurors are expected to see the videotaped interviews.

Scott, however, briefly touched on a possible defense strategy — challenging the prosecution’s assertion that Scherf planned to kill Biendl.

In his opening statement, Scott showed jurors the cord and photographs of Biendl’s bruised neck. He read excerpts from Scherf’s interviews with detectives, as the inmate attempted to explain what he said happened inside the chapel sanctuary.

Scherf claimed Biendl made a comment about his wife. He became angry, feeling a rage over what, Scherf said, was a culmination of offenses he had suffered over decades locked behind bars.

“‘That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,’” Scott said, quoting Scherf.

The defendant remembered the struggle and pulling the cord around her neck.

“He blacked out, disassociated. He came to sitting on a pew in the sanctuary,” Scott said. “He was a little bewildered.”

Using the inmate’s own words, Scott told jurors that Scherf couldn’t explain to detectives what happened. Scherf said it was a surreal experience. In those moments after he realized Biendl wasn’t breathing, the defendant struggled to make sense of what happened, Scott said.

The Everett defense attorney outlined in some detail the evidence he expects to be offered by the medical examiner. For example, Biendl likely was rendered unconscious because the cord around her neck quickly cut off the flow of oxygenated blood to her brain. At the same time, the ligature, while tightly wrapped, didn’t crush her airway, Scott said.

He suggested that the speed of Biendl’s death and the lesser amount of force used gives jurors a reason to wonder whether the facts support premeditated murder.

“The evidence will show that he did this because he was enraged,” losing control, Scott said.

To convict Scherf of aggravated murder, the jury will have to find that he formed the intent to kill the corrections officer.

Prosecutors told jurors that Scherf admitted to contemplating the homicide for up to 20 minutes. He lagged behind the other inmates as they were leaving the chapel for the night, Stern said. He stashed his coat and hat, giving him an excuse to return. He left the building, shut the front gate and walked the 37 feet back to the chapel, where Biendl was inside locking up, Stern said. He entered the sanctuary, walking another 87 feet to the front of the room. He ripped the communications radio from Biendl. He knew there were no cameras in the sanctuary, Stern said.

“He decided he was going to kill her and he decided he was going to kill her with his own hands,” he said.

At the time Scherf outweighed Biendl by 100 pounds. He was big and he was strong, Stern said. The prosecutor held up Biendl’s duty belt, the circumference illustrating the woman’s petite stature.

Even so, Biendl fought for her life, biting and kicking, jurors were told.

Scherf grabbed an amplifier cord left on the stage. Evidence indicates even as she was being strangled, Biendl fought, Stern said.

“She didn’t want to die,” he said.

And Scherf later told detectives that Biendl didn’t deserve to die. Jurors were told that he wrote a letter saying he would plead guilty to aggravated murder to give her family swift justice.

In another letter he sent the The Daily Herald months later, he wrote that his decision to fight prosecution and punishment was over being denied snacks and other jail privileges he believed sheriff’s detectives had promised him.

The deputy prosecutor questioned whether Scherf, in offering a confession, showed remorse or enjoyed reliving the killing.

Scott, however, told jurors that Scherf felt remorse. Scherf is a religious man; he offered his confession after he studied scripture. Scherf told authorities he deserved to die because he had taken another life.

Scott repeated the phrase, quoting Scherf, “If you take someone’s life, your life should be taken,” at least four times in as many variations. The jury, who must decide his client’s fate, is made up of five women and seven men.

Testimony on Wednesday included the accounts of more than a half dozen corrections officers on duty the night Biendl was killed. Jurors were introduced to prison practices and given a photographic tour of the reformatory.

Several corrections officers also explained their interactions with Scherf that night. They told jurors they had no inkling that something violent had happened, judging by Scherf’s behavior after he was found in the chapel and taken into custody.

They also said he gave conflicting accounts of how he ended up with drops of blood on his shirt and his jacket.

Scherf even offered a thin smile in a photo that was taken shortly after the killing.

His behavior began to change after he was brought to a holding cell in a segregated intensive management unit.

One officer said Scherf’s hands shook and he seemed “trembly.”

Corrections officer Michael Adams was assigned to watch Scherf.

He said Scherf’s middle finger was bleeding and that he requested a tissue. The prisoner then asked for a tetanus shot, telling Adams, “You never know what you can catch from being bitten.”

Scherf stood for a while, then began to pace before sitting down on a bench and asking for a bible, Adams said.

After a while, he sat down on the cell floor. That’s when Adams heard Scherf say something.

“He said that he shouldn’t have done this,” Adams said.

Reporter Eric Stevick contributed to this story.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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