Judge steps aside in Opel case

By Jim Haley

Herald Writer

At the request of a defense attorney, a judge on Friday said he will not preside over the murder trial of a woman accused in the stabbing death of an Everett man because it might appear that he is biased.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Charles French recused himself in the case of Barbara Opel, 38, who is accused of recruiting five teen-agers to kill and rob Jerry Heimann, 64, of Everett.

Lawyer Brian Phillips made the request last week, saying French already knows too much about the case. French presided over a lengthy Juvenile Court hearing in which he found that three of the teens should be tried for murder as adults.

Phillips didn’t accuse the judge of being biased, but he concluded that some reasonable person might perceive that French was biased in decisions a judge must make about evidence and other matters.

"In view of the claim of an appearance of unfairness, my involvement in court proceedings in Juvenile Court … and the offense with which she is charged … I am recusing myself from further proceedings" in the case, French wrote in a short letter to the attorneys.

French previously had stepped aside in the case of one of the teens, Barbara Opel’s 14-year-old daughter, Heather.

In his letter, the judge also noted that deputy prosecutor George Appel had suggested it might make sense for the same judge to handle the cases of both Barbara and Heather Opel.

Phillips said he was pleased that the judge "recognizes how important it is that people believe the trial is fair. And we hope, despite the nature of the case, (Opel) will be able to receive a fair trial."

Prosecutors are still mulling whether to seek the death penalty, and have a late February deadline to make that decision.

Besides Heather Opel, French decided that another 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy should be tried as adults. He kept the case of a 13-year-old boy in Juvenile Court and later found him guilty.

The 13-year-old likely will be confined in a juvenile institution until he is 21.

Other young teens face the possibility of 20 years in prison.

A fifth teen-ager involved in the case, 17-year-old Jeff Grote, Heather Opel’s former boyfriend, has pleaded guilty and could be sentenced to 50 years in prison. Because of his age and the severity of the crime, Grote’s case was automatically filed in adult court.

In a hearing last week, Phillips contended that attorneys for all the juveniles kept "throwing blame at Barbara Opel."

It could appear to a reasonable person that Barbara Opel would not get a fair trial because of that, Phillips maintained.

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447 or send e-mail to haley@heraldnet.com.

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