By SCOTT NORTH
A Snohomish County judge was expected this morning to decide whether a death-penalty sentencing trial should continue for a convicted murderer who was paralyzed after an apparent jailhouse suicide attempt Wednesday.
Charles Ben Finch, 51, remains in grave condition at an Everett hospital after leaping headfirst from an upper balcony at the county jail in Everett, Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry was told Sunday.
Everett police have concluded the leap was attempted suicide based on witness reports and a calendar book found in Finch’s cell with the word "Dead" entered on Wednesday’s date, according to court documents filed Sunday.
Finch was being held at the jail 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 is to determine whether Finch should receive the death sentence or be sent to prison for the rest of his life without possibility of release.
Castleberry convened the unusual Sunday court session in preparation for today, when he is expected to rule whether Finch’s trial should continue.
Lawyers for the convicted double murderer said they plan to ask for a mistrial after doctors told the judge Sunday that Finch is not able to assist in his defense.
Prosecutors, however, will argue that the case should continue to closing arguments and a verdict, because Finch has voluntarily absented himself by attempting to take his own life.
Finch’s doctors testified he is now paralyzed in both legs, barely able to move his arms and hooked up to a machine that is helping him breathe.
His biggest threat to survival at this point is an infection that appears to be developing in his lungs and is known to be fatal in roughly half the patients afflicted, the judge was told.
Finch is unconscious and unable to open his eyes because of swelling linked to intravenous fluids that have been pumped into his body. He has a tube in his throat hooked up to the machine that is breathing for him.
It may be two weeks or more before doctors know whether Finch will survive, said Dr. Elizabeth Neuger, a surgeon who has been caring for the man since his suicide attempt.
"He’s very sick," she said. "I don’t anticipate him being able to speak to us for two to three weeks," she said.
Dr. Sanford Wright, an Everett neurosurgeon, said Finch suffered injuries to his head, neck and spine when he fell more than 15 feet after leaping from a second-floor rail inside the jail module where he was being housed.
The fall caused bleeding in his brain and cracked some of his vertebrae, causing "severe injuries" to his spinal cord in at least two locations, Wright said.
Finch’s legs are paralyzed and he appears to have some degree of paralysis in his left arm as well, Wright said.
"He lies in bed and he only moves his right arm a little," Wright said.
Finch’s ability to participate in legal matters is "certainly impossible" at this point, he added.
But the trial may continue without Finch.
Castleberry directed lawyers to prepare proposed jury instructions, including a statement to jurors on why Finch’s trial has been delayed since Wednesday.
Jurors were sent home Thursday and told to report back to court this morning for closing arguments.
Bill Jaquette, the county’s chief public defender and one of two defense attorneys representing Finch, said he plans to ask Castleberry to declare a mistrial because Finch is not legally competent.
Deputy prosecutor Michael Downes said that case law in Washington allows a death penalty trial to proceed if the defendant was competent during the trial and has somehow voluntarily made himself unavailable.
"Mr. Finch won’t be here, but he won’t be here because of things he did, himself," Downes said.
Finch was able to assist in his defense until his suicide attempt, deputy prosecutor Helene Blume said. Just hours before his jump, the man stood before jurors, apologized for his crimes and made an articulate plea for mercy.
"I don’t think there is going to be any question, at all, that Charles Finch was competent during trial," she said.
Jurors have spent much of three weeks hearing how Finch six years ago 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 later opened fired on deputies, killing Kinard with a single bullet to the neck.
A jury in 1995 found Finch guilty of the murders and ruled he deserved death. But the state Supreme Court in 1999 tossed out the sentence because jurors saw Finch in handcuffs and with a nylon hobble on his ankles. His underlying convictions remain intact.
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