Finch’s fall puts sentencing on hold

By SCOTT NORTH

Herald Writer

A Snohomish County jury was sent home Thursday as lawyers tried to grapple with the legal fallout from a defendant’s apparent suicide attempt just hours before his death-penalty trial was scheduled to conclude.

Charles Ben Finch, 51, was in critical condition Thursday after he apparently hurled himself Wednesday evening from a second-floor balcony inside the county jail in Everett.

Finch was being held there during his second sentencing trial for the August 1994 murders of sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard, 34, and a blind man, Ronald Modlin, 38. The trial’s sole purpose was to determine whether Finch should receive the death sentence or be sent to prison for the rest of his life without possibility of release.

Jurors showed up at the courthouse Thursday expecting to hear closing arguments. Instead, Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry sent them home for the weekend.

"Unfortunately, we are not able to proceed today, and we won’t be able to proceed tomorrow," the judge said.

He told jurors to return Monday, and also ordered them to avoid all newspaper and broadcast news reports until told otherwise. A similar admonition has been in place since the trial began Oct. 12.

"I’m sorry. This cannot be avoided," the judge said.

Finch on Wednesday afternoon had personally addressed jurors, urging them to consider mercy in his case. About six hours later, he was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.

The man’s lawyers had little to say Thursday as they headed back to their offices to begin sorting out the legal issues.

"We are really numb," said Bill Jaquette, who heads the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. He has represented Finch in both of his death-penalty trials.

Prosecutors said they were trying to determine what happened Wednesday night, as well as whether there are other death-penalty cases similar enough to provide legal guidance on the next step in Finch’s case.

"We need more information," assistant chief criminal deputy prosecutor Michael Downes said. "We need to know what happened. We need to know his mental state."

If evidence indicates that Finch attempted to kill himself, it would mark the second time he has attempted suicide while at the jail. In September 1994, Finch nearly died in his cell when he choked himself unconscious after fashioning a garrote from part of a sheet and a rolled up newspaper.

Finch on Wednesday told jurors that he had tried to kill himself at the jail six years ago because his wife had served him with divorce papers that day, the first anniversary of their wedding.

Finch also told jurors that he’s spent the years since his conviction coming to grips with what he called the "terrible thing" he did to Kinard and Modlin, and knowing that he can’t be forgiven.

Jurors have spent much of three weeks listening to evidence about how Finch, a former convict who had served time in prison for rape and manslaughter, went to the home of his then-estranged wife planning to take her life and then kill himself. Instead, he shot Modlin, who was visiting, and then opened fired on deputies when they converged on the scene, killing Kinard with a single bullet to the neck.

A jury in 1995 found Finch guilty of the murders and ruled he deserved the death sentence. But the state Supreme Court in 1999 tossed out the sentence because jurors had seen Finch restrained by handcuffs and a nylon strap on his ankles. His underlying convictions remain intact.

Prosecutors were mindful Thursday that how the court addresses Finch’s injuries could become an appeal issue later.

The first case they were researching was that of David Lewis Rice, who was sentenced to die for the 1985 Christmas Eve slayings of a Seattle family.

Rice had challenged his death sentence in part by claiming that his rights were violated when the jury returned its death verdict when he wasn’t present in the courtroom. At the time of sentencing, Rice had ingested a mixture of tobacco and water and was in a Seattle hospital after having his stomach pumped.

A federal judge in Tacoma sided with Rice, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals let the death sentence stand. The federal judge later tossed out Rice’s sentence and convictions, based on his finding that Rice had received ineffective assistance from trial attorneys.

While prosecutors were appealing that decision, Rice pleaded guilty to the murders under an agreement that spared him a death sentence but also blocked further appeals. Rice is now serving a life sentence.

Deputy prosecutor Helene Blume said that one of the key factors in the Rice case was that most of the appeals court members viewed Rice’s aborted suicide attempt as a voluntary decision on his part to be absent from part of his trial.

But it still can take years for the courts to decide whether a trial is unconstitutional even when a defendant voluntarily decides not to appear during a portion of his death-penalty case.

Charles Rodman Campbell, who was executed in 1994 for the stabbing murders of two women and a girl near Clearview, pursued nearly a decade of appeals based on his voluntary decision not to be present when jurors were being picked for his case.

Prosecutors did not immediately know Thursday whether an attempt by Finch to hurt or kill himself would be grounds for a mistrial.

"There certainly have been cases where people have refused to come to court, or fled," Downes said. "The question is how do you deal with it. The options run the gamut from keeping going (with the trial) to starting over."

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