Appeals court overturns ex-inmate’s third-strike conviction

MONROE — The state Court of Appeals has overturned the conviction of a former Monroe inmate who attacked a corrections officer in 2012. The conviction sent Jimi James Hamilton away for life.

It was Hamilton’s third strike in a long rap sheet but the court’s decision could mean another chance at freedom for Hamilton.

“We are very happy with the court’s ruling and their protection of the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” said Snohomish County public defender Jennifer Rancourt, one of Hamilton’s trial attorneys.

The state Court of Appeals decided that Hamilton’s 2014 trial was flawed. It concluded that Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Marybeth Dingledy was wrong to allow deputy prosecutor Cindy Larsen to question a defense witness the way she did.

“By allowing the State to bring forth this improper evidence to impeach Hamilton’s sole expert witness, the trial court failed in its duty as gatekeeper,” the appellate judges wrote in their opinion.

Over the course of the cross-examination of the witness, “these errors amassed into a systemic prejudice against Hamilton’s case and, ultimately, deprived him of a fair trial,” they added.

At trial the defense argued that their client was a victim of an untreated mental illness and suffered from the lasting effects of long stints in solitary confinement. They pursued a diminished capacity defense, telling jurors that Hamilton was in a “dissociative state” when he attacked corrections officer Nicholas Trout.

Hamilton, they said, believed he was defending himself against an inmate who had once warned him never to be a snitch in prison. The defense argued that Hamilton was panicked because he’d recently reported that another inmate and a female corrections officer were having a sexual relationship.

Prosecutors had a different theory, alleging that Hamilton was mad at Trout because he wouldn’t let the inmate visit another area in the unit. Hamilton was living in the Special Offender Unit, part of the Monroe prison that houses some of the state’s most seriously mentally ill offenders.

Hamilton was serving time for his second bank robbery.

On the day of the attack, Hamilton raced toward the corrections officer, knocked him to the ground and wailed on him with both hands. A video captured the assault. Bones in Trout’s face were shattered during the attack.

The trial centered on Hamilton’s mental state at the time of the pummeling. Hamilton testified at trial as did one defense expert witness, a psychiatrist. Dr. Stuart Grassian testified that Hamilton suffered from mental illnesses at the time he attacked Trout. He concluded that Hamilton’s bipolar mood disorder prevented him from being able to have the capacity to form intent.

A jury wasn’t persuaded and convicted Hamilton of second-degree assault. That turned out to be his third-strike under the state’s persistent offender law. Dingledy sentenced Hamilton to life behind bars without the possibility of release.

Hamilton predicted out loud at his sentencing that his conviction wouldn’t stand.

“Don’t be sorry,” he told Rancourt. “It ain’t over.”

Hamilton’s appellate lawyers focused primarily on the cross-examination of Grassian. His trial attorneys had made similar arguments but to no avail.

Larsen repeatedly referenced Hamilton’s medical records, but never established that Grassian relied on those to form his opinion, the state Court of Appeals pointed out. The records were never admitted as an exhibit. Also none of those professionals whose observations and opinions were in the medical records testified at trial.

Grassian said he reviewed the records but formulated his opinion from conducting interviews with Hamilton and his family members.

Larsen set about trying to raise doubts about the psychiatrist’s conclusions. She read into the record the other doctors’ opinions, including their conclusions that Hamilton had a tendency to fake mental illnesses. The state Court of Appeals concluded that Dingledy shouldn’t have allowed Larsen to impeach Grassian with “‘unrelied on opinions’ that constituted inadmissible hearsay.”

The court reasoned that Larsen should have called the physicians referenced in Hamilton’s records to testify. That would have avoided the hearsay issue, the court wrote.

“The prosecutor’s mode of impeachment seriously undermined Hamilton’s ability to assert his diminished capacity defense,” the judges wrote.

Prosecutors plan to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision.

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

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