By Jim Haley / Herald Writer
Noreen Marie Erlandson walked into a Snohomish County courtroom Wednesday afternoon bound by leg shackles and handcuffs.
Michael O’Leary / The Herald
Police escort Noreen Erlandson on Wednesday at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett.
By evening, the restraints were gone, and she was free to walk out of the Snohomish County Jail and start a new life after 14 years behind bars.
The former Bothell nurse, now 52, served less than a third of the 40-year prison term imposed in 1992 after a jury convicted her of second-degree murder in the beating death of her 21/2-year-old adopted daughter, Kayla.
Her release came after two state Supreme Court decisions invalidated the convictions of scores of people across the state who had been convicted of second-degree murder.
Erlandson is the first in Snohomish County to be freed.
She left court maintaining her innocence, but agreed to plead guilty to the lesser crime of first-degree manslaughter. She told the judge she wanted to put it all behind her.
It was essentially the same deal worked out by prosecutors and Seattle defense attorney David Zuckerman in June 2003 after the first of the high court rulings invalidated a King County murder conviction in which someone died while an assault was taking place.
Erlandson wouldn’t talk to reporters, so it’s uncertain what shape her new life will take. She won’t be able to go back into nursing because of the manslaughter conviction.
A group of supporters was in the courtroom, and some waited hours Wednesday in the jail lobby for Erlandson to be released.
While in prison, she studied horticulture, drafting, how to record books on tape and how to become a personal trainer.
She wants to become a personal trainer, said Janet Roderick, a friend from Kelso.
For recreation, Erlandson has loftier heights.
“She wants to climb Mount Rainier,” Roderick said. “That’s what kept her going all this time.”
Erlandson’s new life will start out at another friend’s home in Seattle, where she will live at least for a while.
Her friends wrote her often and visited her frequently at the state women’s prison near Gig Harbor. Her friends also say she is innocent.
Marian Cottrell of Lake Forest Park said she doesn’t think Erlandson got a fair trial. She maintains there was “serious jury misconduct” during the 1992 trial.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling in November made it clear that a lot of people convicted of second-degree murder will get out, or at least have their prison sentences shortened.
For decades, prosecutors filed murder charges against people who intended to assault someone but not to kill them. Now, those people may get out of prison or face lesser charges such as manslaughter.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne said he had no choice but to sign an order freeing Erlandson. The maximum penalty for manslaughter in 1991, when Kayla died, was 10 years. Erlandson has already served longer than the maximum. Even so, she was required to plead guilty to manslaughter or face a new trial.
In the plea paperwork, Erlandson said: “I am not guilty of this (manslaughter) charge. A jury found me guilty once, however, and there is a significant risk that a new jury would reach the same conclusion.
“I am therefore pleading guilty because I want to take advantage of the prosecutor’s plea offer.”
Wynne was not convinced.
“I hope someday you accept responsibility for your actions, because I firmly believe your actions are responsible for Kayla’s death,” the judge told her.
Defense attorney Zuckerman maintains that the evidence against his client was weak and that the many injuries suffered by Kayla could have been inflicted while the girl was with a baby sitter.
“No one was devastated more than Noreen Erlandson” by the girl’s death, he said.
The prosecutors said they had no choice but to free Erlandson.
Under the high court decisions, “there’s no valid basis to uphold the (murder) conviction,” deputy prosecutor Aaron Fine said. “I think the … decisions are horrible, but the courts are bound by it.”
Several members of the victim-advocate group Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims were in the courtroom representing Kayla.
“It’s a travesty,” said Jenny Wieland, the group’s executive director. “What she did to that little girl is murder.”
Her group is gearing up to aid family members of other victims. Up to 20 more people convicted of second-degree murder in Snohomish County could be freed or have their sentences reduced following the high court decisions.
Veteran Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Joe Ward, the prime investigator on the Erlandson case, also was in court.
“This is one of the most offensive hearings I’ve ever attended,” Ward said.