MONROE — The state Supreme Court officially has overturned the death penalty for Byron Scherf, the Monroe prison inmate who killed corrections officer Jayme Biendl in 2011.
The ruling Thursday formally seals Scherf’s fate.
He will die in prison, but not by execution.
The unanimous decision comes four years after Gov. Jay Inslee suspended capital punishment in Washington, for the remainder of his time in his office. Then last month, the state’s highest court tossed out the death penalty as unconstitutional.
Biendl’s family expressed sadness and anger at the decision in October.
“We are angry about the Supreme Court ruling,” the family said in a statement last month. “Jayme’s murderer was serving life without parole when he strangled her. This literally means that he got away with murder of an innocent person and that action has no consequence for him.”
State justices pointed to the history of the death penalty being unequally applied — “sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in October.
Yet justices left open the possibility for legislators to revise the law, to make it constitutional.
In a 59-page ruling Thursday, the court rejected Scherf’s grievances about legal technicalities in the case. But the court vacated his death sentence, citing the October ruling in the case known as State v. Gregory.
Scherf, a repeat rapist, was already serving a life sentence in prison when he killed Biendl. His criminal record dated to 1973, when he broke into a home as a juvenile.
He picked up a hitchhiker in Tacoma in 1978, took her into the woods and held her down at knifepoint.
He’d held a knife to a stranger’s neck in Tacoma in 1981, raped her, poured gasoline on her and set her on fire in a blanket. She escaped.
He raped a real estate agent in October 1995, when he feigned interest in a Spokane home, showed up with a gun and rifle and abducted her. He told the woman his plan was to take her into the woods, rape her and bury her there. She lived to tell police what happened.
Scherf, 60, was sentenced to life in prison for that crime. He was housed at the state prison in Monroe, when he strangled Biendl on Jan. 29, 2011. He was the last person sentenced to death in Washington state.
That night, Biendl was working a shift alone in the prison chapel. Scherf confessed to killing her in February 2011.
“If I get a life sentence and she’s (dead) then there’s no punishment attached to it,” he told police, “because I already have a life sentence.”
Days later, Scherf wrote a letter to prosecutors.
“I ask you to charge Aggravated 1st Degree Murder (w/the death penalty) at my arraignment I WILL plead guilty!” he wrote. “I have a moral obligation to do so. The Biendl family deserves no less. I will not put them through any more suffering than they are already enduring. They deserve swift justice and closure.”
His case did go to trial. Both sides said there is no question that Scherf was 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.
It took jurors less than an hour to convict him.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.