Father of slain corrections officer talks of family’s loss

EVERETT — Prosecutors called just one witness on Monday as they tried to persuade jurors that the inmate who murdered a Monroe corrections officer doesn’t deserve mercy.

James Hamm cradled a small framed photograph in his hands as walked to the witness stand.

“Jayme Biendl is my oldest daughter,” he said.

Hamm held up his daughter’s photograph. A proud dad. A heartbroken man.

He read from a letter, his voice trembling at times as he tried to put into words his family’s loss.

“There is an enormous void in our lives that will never be filled,” Hamm said.

He described a woman who wanted to have a family of her own one day. She was a good daughter to her parents and a “mother hen” to her siblings. She loved being an aunt and looked forward to teaching her nephews how to ride horses.

“She was the cornerstone of our family and now she is gone,” Hamm said.

Her family is left with nightmares and images of her last moments, fighting for her life. Her siblings wrestle with what-ifs, maybe they should have pressured her to find a different profession, something safer.

As for her father, from the moment she was born, he just wanted to protect her.

“I think how Jayme needed my help and I failed,” Hamm said.

He was in the courtroom Thursday when the jury convicted Byron Scherf of aggravated first-degree murder. Scherf admitted that he strangled Biendl in 2011 inside the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory.

The guilty verdict moved the trial to a second phase, which is expected to continue today. By law, the jury is now to decide Scherf’s sentence — life in prison without the chance of release, or execution.

Prosecutors must prove that there aren’t sufficient reasons to spare Scherf’s life.

They didn’t spend much time on Monday presenting evidence or making their argument to jurors.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler was careful in his opening remarks. He simply asked jurors to reflect on the evidence they already heard at trial. He also asked jurors to consider the impact the crime has had on Biendl’s family. He also pointed to Scherf’s criminal history. Jurors were told during trial that Scherf already was serving a life sentence, but on Monday they heard for the first time that he is a twice-convicted rapist.

Meanwhile, defense attorney Karen Halverson told jurors there are reasons her client deserves leniency.

Since Scherf was 19, he’s only been out of prison for about two years, she said. He had been a model prisoner, taking advantage of self-improvement programs and educational opportunities while behind bars. Scherf, 54, had only two infractions in the decades he was imprisoned.

“He was always trying to improve himself,” she said.

Halverson also painted a bleak picture of Scherf’s existence in prison in the years to come. She argued that the death penalty isn’t the only way to punish him.

Scherf was in medium custody at the time of Biendl’s murder. He was allowed freedoms, such as taking classes, volunteering at the chapel and working in the print shop, Halverson said.

“Byron will never be in medium security again,” she said.

She reminded jurors of the video they saw during the week-long trial that showed Scherf being moved from the intensive management unit after Biendl’s body was discovered. He was strip-searched, shackled before he left his cell and guarded by several corrections officers as he was moved to the hospital ward.

“That’s the life Byron will be living when he returns to prison,” she said.

He likely will be preyed on by other inmates, who were unhappy with some of the changes in prison life that followed Biendl’s death, she said.

Halverson also pointed the finger at the state Department of Corrections. She told jurors that their were failures the night Biendl was killed. She reminded them about an officer who left his post where he was supposed to be, monitoring inmates as they left the chapel.

“Had he been there the evening of January 29 it likely would have ended differently,” Halverson said.

There is nothing that excuses what happened to Jayme Biendl, she added.

Scherf, however, does deserve leniency, Halverson said.

“It is obvious Byron is a damaged, broken man, but he is not beyond redemption,” she said.

The jury spent most of the afternoon hearing from Scott Frakes. He was the superintendent at the Monroe Correctional Complex when Biendl was killed.

Halverson questioned him at length about the findings of an independent investigation into the prison after the murder. The National Institute of Corrections made a number of findings and recommendations. Jurors learned that three corrections officers were fired and others were disciplined over what happened that night. Housing assignments and programming for all inmates serving life sentences were scrutinized.

Halverson also questioned Frakes about what will happen once Scherf goes back to prison.

Frakes told jurors Scherf will be housed in an intensive management unit under maximum security. Those inmates generally spend 23 hours a day in their cells. They are restrained any time they are outside their cells and in the presence of corrections officers or prison staff. They are searched every time they leave their cells. They aren’t allowed any contact with other inmates.

Even if he were placed in the most-secure setting in prison there is no guarantee Scherf would remain there, Frakes later said during the cross examination by prosecutors. Prison policies and operational philosophy change with each new corrections secretary, he said. Moreover, litigation is being pursued around the country, challenging how intensive-management units are operated, and that may mean changes.

And in spite of practices designed to increase safety, the high-security settings still have the highest number of inmate assaults on corrections officers, Frakes said.

Deputy prosecutor Paul Stern asked the former Monroe superintendent about the conclusions in the federal report. Among other things, investigators zeroed in on the need for more training to keep prison workers always on the alert for potential attacks or inmate attempts at manipulation.

The report correctly identified the dangers inherent for those who work in prison, Frakes said. All it takes for the situation to turn deadly is an inmate who is observant enough, clever enough and patient enough, he said.

Writer Scott North contributed to this report.

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

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