Frank Walton at his sentencing hearing for the murder of Howard Benzel at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Frank Walton at his sentencing hearing for the murder of Howard Benzel at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett tenant’s murder conviction tossed over jury selection bias

Frank Walton was sentenced to 18 years in the killing of his landlord, Howard Benzel. He now faces a new trial.

EVERETT — Prosecutors improperly pushed to excuse multiple potential jurors in the 2021 murder trial of an Everett man for the killing of his landlord, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

The ruling overturns the second-degree murder conviction the jury initially decided on for Frank Walton, 44, in the slaying of Howard Benzel.

Often during jury selection before trial — a process known as voir dire — dozens of potential jurors are brought into the downtown Everett courthouse. Prosecutors and defense attorneys question them to see if they’d be a good fit for the jury. The questions often range from handling traumatic imagery to views on law enforcement. Then the attorneys whittle down the number of jurors to 12. To excuse prospective jurors, the attorneys use what are called “peremptory challenges.” Attorneys don’t have to give a reason when using these challenges.

However, under state court rules, either side can argue the other is using bias in asking to remove certain jurors.

In this case, the jury had no Black members. Walton is Black. Benzel was white.

In court, defense attorneys argued prosecutors pushed to excuse potential jurors who expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement or distrust of the police.

The appeals court ruling points to two potential jurors who Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anna Alexander wrongly excused.

For example, Juror 22, told prosecutors “it’s difficult for me to trust police” over concerns about police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement, according to court records. However, the prospective juror said if seated on the jury, she would “actually just try to push that stuff to the back of my mind and almost start afresh.” She said if police officers testified, she would have no “preconceived bias” against them.

Prosecutors asked Alexander to excuse Juror 22 from service. Walton’s public defenders argued this was improper.

“The fact that Walton is a Black man centered those perspectives in a way that may not have occurred if the accused was a White person,” the appellate judges wrote in Monday’s ruling.

Prosecutors urged Alexander to excuse Juror 38 for similar reasons as Juror 22. The prospective juror noted “people of color have been unjustly treated by the American justice system, and I feel like it’s really important for me to acknowledge any bias that I might have as a white person when things come to light,” according to the appellate court records.

The potential juror also reportedly said race would be front of mind to “make sure that I’m not dealing with any unconscious biases here that might make me feel one way or the other.”

When defense attorneys challenged this move, the prosecutors argued Juror 38 would be biased against police during the trial.

The appellate judges noted that if Juror 38 were a person of color, the judge wouldn’t have been able to dismiss them. So the juror’s excusal violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The clause, added after the abolition of slavery, holds that all people should be treated equally under the law.

The appellate judges ruled Alexander interpreted the state court rule, known as General Rule 37, as only applying to jurors of color “at the exclusion of White people.” The judges called Alexander’s interpretation a “racially discriminatory application of the rule.”

Elise Deschenes, a deputy prosecutor on the case, said in an email Monday: “We are disappointed in the ruling by the Court of Appeals.”

“The purpose to jury selection is to ensure all parties, the defendant and victims, have their case heard by an open minded and non-biased jury,” said Deschenes, who is now the office’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor. “It is important that both sides have the ability to exclude jurors that have expressed an inability to keep an open mind.”

On the other side, Walton’s appellate attorney Lila Silverstein said, “Obviously, we are happy with this ruling.”

“The jury selection in this case was not fair,” she said.

Judge Alexander did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Benzel, 67, and his wife owned a building in the 2100 block of Madison Street. On March 28, 2020, Benzel went to the building to speak to Walton.

His wife of over 40 years told police they had been having problems with Walton, then 40. He was living in the commercial unit he rented to sell used goods. The Benzels didn’t plan to renew his lease.

Benzel was supposed to be back in Mukilteo to take her for a drive at 1 p.m. Worried, his wife went looking for him around 4 p.m.

Passersby discovered human remains two days later about a mile north of Lake McMurray in Skagit County. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the remains as those of Benzel and ruled his death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.

On the witness stand, Medical Examiner Dr. J. Matthew Lacy made what he considered a conservative estimate for how many times Benzel was struck: 25. One wound on Benzel’s cheek was consistent with being hit with a hammer, Lacy testified. He said there was also some evidence of possible strangulation and bleeding on Benzel’s brain.

In December 2021, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anna Alexander sentenced Walton to 18⅓ years.

The prosecutor’s office was reviewing its options for the next step in the case, Deschenes said. Those options include taking the case to the state Supreme Court or retrying Walton in Snohomish County.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Frank Walton’s age.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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