EVERETT — A single sob rose in the hushed courtroom after the guilty verdict was announced.
A father weeping for his firstborn, his beautiful daughter.
Jayme Biendl was murdered at her post at the Washington State Reformatory on Jan. 29, 2011. The corrections officer fought for her life before she was strangled with a cord inside the sanctuary of the prison chapel.
On Thursday, it took a Snohomish County jury less than an hour to convict an inmate of aggravated first-degree murder. The jury’s verdict puts Byron Scherf on the path that could lead to a death sentence.
Biendl’s family and friends gripped each other’s hands as the clerk prepared to read the verdict. Their tears came moments later. Many have attended every day of the weeklong trial. They will have to wait longer to learn Scherf’s fate.
The jury now must decide whether Scherf will face execution, or a mandatory punishment of life in prison without release. The trial’s penalty phase is scheduled to begin next week and could last several days.
Scherf, standing with his attorneys, showed no reaction as the verdict was read.
Prosecutors are expected to present evidence they believe proves that Scherf doesn’t deserve mercy.
The defense declined to say Thursday whether they will call witnesses to testify on Scherf’s behalf.
“We respect the jury’s verdict. Our sympathies are with the Biendl family. We look forward to starting the penalty phase on Monday,” defense attorney Jon Scott said after the verdict.
Jurors had spent part of the morning listening to closing arguments and began deliberating about 12:40 p.m. They announced reaching a decision about 1:30 p.m.
In their closing arguments both sides said there is no question that Scherf, 54, is responsible for Biendl’s death.
The attorneys argued, however, over whether the killing was premeditated, an element necessary to be guilty of first-degree murder. Scherf is already serving a life sentence for violent crimes against women.
Scott asked the jury to find Scherf guilty of second-degree murder. If convicted of the lesser charge, the death penalty would not have been a possible punishment.
There wasn’t evidence to show that Scherf plotted to kill Biendl, Scott told jurors. He said Scherf was overcome with anger because of something Biendl said to him earlier in the night.
“Anger is a horrible destructive force and on that night it consumed Byron,” Scott said.
Scherf thought he was mad enough to kill her, but he didn’t formulate a plan to carry out the slaying, Scott said.
|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 focused on Scherf’s actions leading up to the killing, and pointed to statements he made to detectives, recorded in a videotaped confession.
“She was planning to go home. He was planning to kill her,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler said.
Prosecutors told the jury that on the night of the murder, Scherf stalled for time after church services to ensure he was alone with Biendl. He had peeked inside the sanctuary to make sure it was empty. He told another inmate he needed to go back inside to grab his hat. He closed the gate outside the chapel to avoid drawing the attention of other corrections officers. He attacked Biendl in an area that wasn’t monitored by security cameras.
“These are not easy things to accomplish in a prison,” Stemler argued.
In Scherf’s own words, he decided to kill Biendl before he slipped back into the sanctuary. He planned to choke her.
“He was locked and loaded and ready to kill some 13 minutes before” the attack, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern said.
What Scherf didn’t account for was Biendl’s strength. Biendl inflicted 70 different injuries on the 240-pound inmate and left behind plenty of forensic evidence detectives used to nail down their murder case.
“He didn’t think 134-pound, 5-feet 4-inch, 34-year-old Jayme Biendl would fight for the life he was trying to take,” Stern said.
Diana Hefley, firstname.lastname@example.org, 425-339-3463
Death penalty phase
Here’s the question jurors will be asked to answer in the next phase of the trial for convicted murderer Byron Scherf: “Having in mind the crime of which the defendant has been found guilty, are you convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency?”