12 years for slaying suspect

EVERETT — In the end, a judge decided that the case wasn’t about a murder.

What Keira Earhart did was more akin to manslaughter, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman concluded on Wednesday. He sentenced the Arlington man to a dozen years in prison — three years below the sta

ndard range.

Earhart shot Ryan Rzechula in the back on Nov. 16, 2009. Earhart, 39, encountered Rzechula about three hours after a break-in at his Arlington house, a quarter-mile away. Earhart had gone looking for the burglar and his wife’s missing jewelry. He suspected that Rzechula, 25, was responsible for the break-in and called 911.

Prosecutors alleged that Earhart shot the unarmed man as he was running away, ignoring Earhart’s commands to stop. Rzechula died in a creek bed. His body was discovered two days later. Detectives found jewelry in his pocket that was stolen from Earhart’s house.

When the case went to trial late last year, jurors acquitted Earhart of intentional murder. They were deadlocked over whether he was guilty under a different theory and also couldn’t reach a decision on whether he was guilty of manslaughter.

That left the door open for Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Mara Rozzano to retry the case.

Jurors last month convicted Earhart of second-degree murder under a felony murder theory. They concluded that Earhart committed assault by pointing a gun at Rzechula. In the course of that crime, Earhart killed the Stanwood High School graduate. That made him guilty as charged, the jurors found.

The jury rejected Earhart’s claim that he shot Rzechula in self-defense.

Prosecutors on Wednesday asked for an 18-year prison term, a mid-range sentence under state guidelines.

“You don’t get to shoot someone who won’t stop,” Rozzano said.

Earhart has shown little remorse for his actions and has taken steps to “further victimize Ryan without taking responsibility for his actions,” Rozzano said.

Defense attorney Pete Mazzone argued that there were grounds to deviate from the standard range and sentence Earhart to six years in prison — a year for the killing and a mandatory five years for criminal use of a firearm.

The law gives judges discretion to deviate from the standard range under certain parameters.

Mazzone argued that Rzechula provoked the situation by breaking into Earhart’s house and threatening him three hours later. That was reason to impose a sentence below the guidelines, he said.

Earhart’s been a law-abiding family man his whole life, the lawyer said. Dozens of people, including the man’s two children, ages 10 and 12, wrote letters to the judge. They praised his contributions to the community and his family.

“Dad is really nice. He is always in a good mood. I don’t believe I ever saw him sad. Or at least cry a tear, which is good, it means he’s strong,” his 10-year-old daughter wrote.

Earhart apologized to Rzechula’s parents on Wednesday.

“I’m very sorry. I’m very sorry,” Earhart said through tears.

Rozzano argued against leniency. Rzechula’s life was taken over a few possessions, she said.

“This is a tragedy of Mr. Earhart’s making. He elected to pull the trigger,” Rozzano said.

McKeeman presided over both murder trials. He heard the same evidence that jurors heard, and more.

The judge on Wednesday acknowledged that both families were suffering because of Earhart’s actions. They have handled themselves well during two very difficult trials, the judge said.

McKeeman said he’d hadn’t received any letters from anyone asking him to endorse vigilantism.

Jurors didn’t believe Earhart’s version of events and rejected his self-defense claim, the judge said. Still, the evidence was clear that Rzechula burglarized Earhart’s home and eluded police to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

He continued to try to elude authorities when he refused to stop for Earhart, the judge said. That provoked the final incident that ended in his death, McKeeman concluded. The burglar’s actions also supplied reason to sentence his killer to punishment below the standard range, the judge said.

Earhart’s reaction was disproportionate to Rzechula’s actions, McKeeman said. However, this murder was not typical. Earhart didn’t intend to commit a felony. He set out to locate the burglar, have him arrested and get his property back, the judge said.

“If he intended to commit a felony, he wouldn’t have called 911,” when he encountered Rzechula, McKeeman said.

The judge said a more-appropriate punishment for Earhart would be a sentence typical for first-degree manslaughter. He felt Earhart’s actions met the legal definition of being reckless — a necessary element of manslaughter.

Regardless, under the law Earhart will remain a convicted murderer.

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

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