Scherf’s trial for murder delayed to 2013

EVERETT — The death penalty trial for an inmate accused of murdering Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl will not happen this year.

On Thursday, after the defense attorneys for Byron Scherf argued that they require more time to prepare, the judge agreed to reschedule the trial for March 29, 2013.

“This must be the hard and fast date,” Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Appel said. “It will not be moved.”

Everett defense attorney Karen Halverson outlined some of the work that she and Jon Scott have put into the case and some of the other issues they plan to pursue, such as challenging the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty law and exploring whether the trial should be moved out of Snohomish County.

Additionally, they simultaneously must prepare for a potential conviction and gather information to present to the jurors to convince them that Scherf’s life should be spared.

The attorneys have a professional and ethical obligation as established by the American Bar Association to be properly prepared for every phase of the case and vigorously defend their client, Halverson said.

So far, the county has paid $114,767.07 for defense experts, according to records obtain by The Herald. That number does not include lawyers fees, but reflects the amount spent on investigators, mitigation specialists and other professionals hired to help the defense prepare for Scherf’s trial as well as begin to explore reasons why a jury should show leniency if he’s convicted.

These experts are called on to delve into every aspect of a defendant’s life, including some highly technical fields, such as neuropsychology, said Katie Ross, the director of the Washington Death Penalty Assistance Center.

Jurors are not only asked to find that there are aggravating circumstances to support a conviction, but they also are asked to determine that the defendant is the “worst of the worst” among those accused of aggravated murder, Ross said.

“That second part, that second question, asking what a person is like as a human being, is way more complicated,” she said.

Those professionals don’t come cheap, and it often takes time to secure their services. A juror being asked to determine if a person should be executed should want to base his or her decision on as much detailed information as possible, she said.

“Because a human life is at stake, the information must be as reliable as possible and that means getting the experts that are the most qualified as possible,” Ross said.

Prosecutors argued against pushing Scherf’s trial into next year, saying that they, and the defense, should be ready for the September date that was set last fall.

Biendl’s family also was opposed to any delays.

The slain woman’s father, James Hamm, told the judge that he wants to see the case move forward, explaining that the delays are hard on his family.

“It’s just tough,” Hamm said.

His daughter was found strangled to death Jan. 29, 2011 at her post in the prison chapel. Scherf told detectives he ambushed Biendl, 34, because she said something disrespectful about his wife earlier that night. It took corrections officers two hours to find Biendl’s body in the sanctuary after Scherf was discovered sitting outside the chapel.

About two weeks later, Scherf, 53, provided sheriff’s detectives with video-recorded confessions, admitting that he was responsible for the homicide, explaining that Biendl’s alleged comment “triggered a response” in him and he was determined to kill her.

It’s still unclear if jurors will get to hear Scherf’s statements to police. The defense argued in part that Scherf bargained away his right to remain silent for better conditions at the jail.

Prosecutors argued that Scherf, an inmate serving life without the possibility of release, was not naive about the peril he faced when he agreed to meet with detectives without his lawyers. He was repeatedly advised that he had the right to counsel and a right not to say anything to police. He chose to speak.

While Scherf has an extensive history of complaining about his conditions of confinement, he also has a history of confessing once he’s confronted with his crimes, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern said.

“Frankly it’s one of the redeemable things about him,” he said. “That’s who he is. That’s what he does.”

Appel on Thursday ruled that Scherf was not coerced into speaking to police. The judge didn’t find that the jail conditions so deplorable that Scherf felt he had no choice but to speak to police. Scherf was properly advised of his rights at every turn, the judge concluded.

“All evidence points to a finding that his decision to make a confession was indeed freely and voluntarily made,” Appel said.

The judge, however, asked for more time to consider the defense’s motion to throw out the statements based on an argument that detectives, jail staff and prosecutors delayed getting Scherf a lawyer.

Appel is expected to decide that issue next month.

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

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