EVERETT — A Snohomish County Superior Court judge on Wednesday declined to reschedule hearings to decide whether a jury will hear the alleged confession of an inmate accused of strangling Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl.
Judge George Appel said he couldn’t find good cause to grant Byron Scherf’s motion to push the hearings until May. The judge acknowledged that both sides faced challenges in preparing for the hearings, but he didn’t have any evidence in front of him to conclude that they couldn’t at least get started on April 9 as previously scheduled.
He also suggested that the defense attorneys and prosecutors sit down outside of court to reach an agreement on scheduling and submit a written proposal.
The judge encouraged the lawyers to respect each other’s needs in an effort to proceed in an “orderly fashion.”
Appel was appointed last week to preside over the death penalty case. He was assigned after Judge Thomas Wynne decided to step down from the case, more than a year after Scherf was charged with aggravated murder for the Jan. 29, 2011 homicide.
The convicted rapist is accused of killing Biendl inside the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory. He was serving a life sentence without the chance of release for violent attacks against women.
The defense alleged that Scherf couldn’t receive a fair trial in front of Wynne. The long-time jurist denied he was biased against the defendant, but concluded that he couldn’t ignore how repeated defense demands that he step down “have impaired this court’s ability to effectively manage the timely resolution” of the case.
The defense on Tuesday filed a motion asking for another month to prepare for key hearings in the case. Defense attorney Karen Halverson on Wednesday told the judge more time is needed for interviews and to hear back from their expert witness, a psychiatrist who has studied the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement.
The defense has interviewed more than 40 witnesses, including Monroe corrections officers and Snohomish County Jail staff. They explained to the judge that they have waited to interview the primary detectives who spoke with Scherf in February. That’s when he allegedly confessed to killing Biendl.
Scherf initially declined to speak with authorities. He later allegedly sent notes to two Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives, requesting to talk to them. The detectives earlier were tasked with photographing Scherf, documenting any possible injuries on the inmate. An attorney advised him not to speak with the detectives, but Scherf reportedly proceeded with the interview.
Prosecutors noted that Scherf didn’t make any statements to most of the people interviewed by the defense. They questioned why the defense waited until now to interview key witnesses.
The purpose of next month’s hearing is fairly narrow. If prosecutors want the jury to hear statements that Scherf made to detectives and corrections officers, they must prove that he spoke to the officers freely and understood his rights.
Halverson said that while she was reluctant to provide information about the defense’s trial strategy, she explained to Appel that numerous people had been in contact with Scherf since he was detained outside the prison chapel. She said that when he was moved to the jail, his housing was “tightly controlled” and suggested that may have been “an attempt to gain his cooperation.”
Appel, however, pointed out that the defense only needs to interview four more people who are named as witnesses by the prosecutors. He believed that those interviews could be completed by April 9 and progress could be made on the case.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.