Scherf deserves death penalty, jury finds

EVERETT — Inside the courtroom Wednesday, Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl’s family sat as they have for the past two years, shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand, bearing the burden, the grief together.

The strength of a family tested by a single act of a violence. The strength of a family holding up under the weight.

Biendl’s family listened as a Snohomish County jury’s verdict was read. Byron Scherf should die for murdering Biendl, jurors concluded.

The decision was greeted with silence in the packed courtroom.

Scherf, 54, showed no reaction. He watched jurors as they individually confirmed the verdict. The inmate was placed in handcuffs while the five women and seven men who decided his fate were led from the courtroom.

“I’ve been waiting 837 days, exactly, to hear those words. I’m going to continue to count until he is finally dead,” Biendl’s sister, Lisa Hamm said.

Later Wednesday, Superior Court Judge George Appel formally signed the paperwork, affirming the sentence. The judge asked Scherf if he had anything to say.

“I do not, sir,” the inmate said.

Appel did not delay: “Byron Eugene Scherf, I hereby sentence you to death for the murder of Jayme Biendl.”

One of his attorneys later told The Herald that while Scherf didn’t directly ask the jury to spare his life, he plans to appeal.

“I’m saddened by the jury’s verdict,” defense attorney Jon Scott said. “I’d hoped they would have had compassion and mercy for Byron, but I’m sorry that they had to be put in the position of making such a terrible choice.”

Jurors began deliberating around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. By 3 p.m. they asked Appel if they could go home for the day. He told them to return to the deliberations. They left by 4:30 p.m. and were asked to return Wednesday morning.

They apparently wanted to sleep on their decision. They reported having reached a verdict a little after their 9 a.m. arrival in the jury room.

Jurors declined to speak publicly about the verdict, but they each stopped on their way from the courthouse to shake hands and exchange a few private words with deputy prosecutor Paul Stern.

“My thoughts are with the Biendl family and with those jurors who had to listen and make a difficult decision. I am proud of our system of justice,” deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler said.

After the verdict, Biendl’s family hugged and thanked Stemler and Stern. They embraced Monroe police detective Barry Hatch and Sgt. Cindy Chessie. They also thanked Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives Brad Walvatne and Dave Bilyeu.

Later, Biendl’s father spoke to a crowd of reporters outside the courthouse. He was surrounded by his children, Biendl’s five surviving siblings.

“I just feel like justice has been served. I’m glad it’s over with,” James Hamm said.

He and his family said they were grateful to the jury for making such a difficult decision.

“It’s so hard for someone to say, ‘I would like to see you die,’” Hamm said.

Biendl’s father was the lone witness called by the prosecution during the sentencing phase of the trial. On the stand, he tried to put into words what his daughter meant to her family, the pain they have suffered because of her death.

“That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and I was in the Marines,” he said.

The same jury last week convicted Scherf of aggravated first-degree murder. They were convinced that he planned the killing on Jan. 29, 2011.

Biendl, 34, was locking up for the night when Scherf ambushed her inside the prison chapel at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. She fought him off, inflicting dozens of injuries on the inmate. Outweighing her by more than 100 pounds, he was able to overpower and strangle her.

The amplifier cord used to kill Biendl was so tight around her neck that the corrections officers who found her body initially did not realize what Scherf had done to her.

One of the inmate’s defense attorneys, Karen Halverson, had urged jurors to spare Scherf’s life, saying that he had tried to improve himself while behind bars. She said that the state Department of Corrections bore responsibility for Biendl’s death, too, and that it was offensive to suggest he should die out of concern that he might continue to pose a risk while behind bars.

Remembering Jayme Biendl
Biendl’s family sees reminders of her everywhere 1/29/12
Memorial: ‘Jayme had so much more to give us’ 2/8/11

Prosecutors countered that Scherf had been given every opportunity to reform. Instead, he earned the distinction of becoming the first inmate to kill a corrections officer in the reformatory’s 100-year history.

Scherf had been serving a life sentence when he killed Biendl. His prior convictions were for two rapes and a sexually motivated assault, all against women.

“He’s a monster. He’s evil all right,” James Hamm said Wednesday.

Scherf did not speak to the jury before they began deliberating.

“I think he said everything he could say in those tapes,” Scott said, referring to lengthy videotaped confessions Scherf provided to police. The videos were played for the jurors during the weeklong trial.

Scherf claimed he killed Biendl out of anger.

His lawyers said that showed the killing was not premeditated. Prosecutors argued that Scherf had carefully planned the attack. He took advantage of complacency among some corrections officers that night to ambush Biendl while she was alone in one of the few places in the prison not monitored by security cameras.

In his confession, Scherf told detectives he deserved to die for taking Biendl’s life.

Asked whether his client still believes that to be true, Scott said those statements should be taken as an expression of Scherf’s remorse.

Under Washington’s death penalty law, Scherf’s conviction and sentence now will undergo a mandatory review before the state Supreme Court. If Scherf opts to pursue an appeal in federal courts, it could be years before an execution is carried out.

Under state law, the presumed method of Scherf’s death is lethal injection. If that happens, he would become the seventh man from Snohomish County to be executed in Washington. Each was put to death at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Appel on Wednesday ordered Scherf to be transferred there. Officials declined to say when he would be moved from the Snohomish County Jail, citing security concerns.

Inmates sentenced to death generally are housed in the intensive management unit at the state penitentiary. They are locked in their cells, behind steel doors, all but one hour a day. They generally are in restraints any time they are in the presence of corrections officers.

The jury’s decision on Scherf’s penalty was another somber moment in a grim case. Biendl’s killing prompted overhauls in the state prison system, including greater restrictions on many inmates who, like Scherf, had been serving life.

Robert Herzog, the superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex, was in the courtroom when the jury announced that Scherf should die.

“This has been a difficult two years for the staff at the complex,” he said. “There is some relief that this chapter of the case has ended, but it certainly doesn’t make up for the loss that the staff and the family feel.”

It also was hard on the correctional officers who had to testify at trial, reliving the tragic night, he said.

Stern, who invested more than 800 hours preparing for trial, praised the 40 witnesses for their testimony. He also commended the detectives, who “just put together a phenomenal case,” he said.

As of December, Snohomish County had billed the state Department of Corrections $365,000 to cover costs associated with the Scherf case. The amount includes services incurred by various government offices, including the county sheriff, prosecutor and court administration. It doesn’t include the fees for Scherf’s lawyers. The Office of Public Defense has a separate contract with the state Department of Corrections to reimburse the hours billed by the two attorneys Scherf was required to have to represent him.

Scherf got a fair trial in this case, was well represented by his attorneys and “the court made all of the parties follow the law,” Stemler said.

“While it is unfortunate, this is a just result,” he said.

Writers Eric Stevick and Scott North contributed to this report. Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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