Opel defense begins its case

Barbara Marie Opel was possessive of friends and as an adult tended to spend more time with children than adults.

That’s just part of the background a defense lawyer laid out Thursday for a jury that must decide whether she lives or dies.

“You may conclude she’s a pathetic person,” lawyer Brian Phillips told the jury.

The panel returned to Snohomish County Superior Court for the penalty phase of the trial following Tuesday’s quick decision that Opel, 39, of Everett was guilty of aggravated first-degree murder.

Jurors found that Opel was the mastermind of a murder-for-hire plot to kill her boss, Jerry D. Heimann, 64, of Everett.

Heimann took in Opel and her three children, and Opel became the live-in caregiver for Heimann’s frail, elderly mother.

Opel testified that she and her children were abused by Heimann, but prosecutors maintained she hired five teenagers, including her own 13-year-old daughter, to kill the Boeing Co. retiree. Prosecutors say she wanted access to his credit cards and bank accounts, and spent $8,000 of his money in the days following the brutal April 13, 2001, slaying.

Heimann was ambushed as he walked into his east Everett home, clubbed with softball bats and stabbed. He had nearly 50 wounds, including a cracked skull. Under Opel’s supervision, his body was dumped on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

Jurors now will decide in the special sentencing procedure whether Opel will spend the rest of her life in prison or be sentenced to death.

“You have literally someone’s life in your hands,” Phillips told the jurors. “I’m going to ask you to try and understand Barbara Opel.”

Her family background, coupled with a brain disorder, should be reason enough for the jury to be lenient, Phillips said, adding that Opel became “socially and emotionally inept.” As a child, “she really needed other children to like her.”

After Opel was born, her mother gave her to someone at the hospital for a few months. As she grew up, Opel and her mother became close, almost sisters, Phillips said. Her early years were spent in a mobile home park in Spokane, and later a mobile home park in the Bothell area.

There are parallels between her own relationship with her mother and Opel’s relationship with Heather Opel, her 13-year-old daughter who also was convicted in Heimann’s death, Phillips said.

Opel allowed her daughter to have a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boy, according to testimony. Barbara Opel was encouraged by her mother to engage in sexual activity when she was about 14 years old, Philips said.

“Barbara, according to her sister, was the spoiled little brat,” the lawyer said.

In recent years, Opel was portrayed as a doting mother, staying at her children’s practices for sporting activities, often yelling inappropriately and drawing disapproving looks from other adults.

“She was more of a child and a companion to the children than a parent,” Phillips said.

An expert is expected to testify that she has a brain problem that affects her behavior, he added.

Prosecutors called only one witness, Greg Heimann, the victim’s son. He spent less than two minutes on the witness stand reading a prepared statement saying, among other things, that “the number of lives Barbara Opel has hurt or destroyed cannot be counted.”

All five of the teens involved in the slaying are expected to have long prison terms.

George Appel, deputy prosecutor, told the jury to keep in mind all the evidence they heard during the three-week trial in which Opel was found guilty.

“When we finish with this case, I submit you will not find” sufficient reason for leniency, Appel told jurors.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haleyheraldnet.com.

The question for the jury

Under state law, this is the question a Snohomish County Superior Court jury will have to answer in deciding whether Barbara Opel lives or dies:

“Having in mind the crime of which the defendant has been found guilty, has the state proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency?”

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