Judge won’t hear murder case

By Jim Haley

Herald Writer

A judge Friday disqualified himself from a first-degree murder case after the lawyer for a 14-year-old defendant asked him to step down.

The request came from an attorney for Heather Opel, 14, who was scheduled to go on trial next week on charges of participating in the bludgeoning and stabbing death of Jerry Heimann, 64, of Everett. Heather Opel could serve up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The rare decision by Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Charles French to disqualify himself at the eleventh hour will mean a trial delay of up to 30 days.

Heather Opel is one of five teen-agers allegedly recruited by her mother, Barbara Opel, to kill Heimann as part of a robbery plot. Barbara Opel, 38, had worked for Heimann as a caregiver to his elderly mother. The prosecutor is deciding whether to ask for the death penalty for the mother.

Barbara Opel’s lawyers next week are expected to make a similar motion asking French to step aside.

"Heather wanted to be in another court, and Heather’s pleased with the judge’s decision," said Michele Shaw, the girl’s Seattle defense lawyer.

Shaw challenged French on the grounds that he had presided over a lengthy Snohomish County Juvenile Court hearing in which he found that all but one of the teens should be tried in adult court.

Shaw said she thought long and hard about asking French to step aside, and did so only after consulting with an expert in judicial ethics. She said French has done nothing to show bias or prejudice, but a reasonable person could conclude he might be biased after hearing extensive details about the case in the juvenile court hearing.

Prosecutors wanted French to stay on the case.

"Essentially, what the defendant is really arguing is that she did not like the court’s decision in this case so far, and is afraid she will not like other decisions this court may render," wrote George Apple, deputy prosecutor.

Heather Opel only "read certain things into your honor’s decision," Apple said, adding that Shaw has not shown any evidence of actual or potential bias. He cautioned the judge that stepping aside might be viewed by some as a "successful effort at judge shopping," an assertion Shaw disputed.

French said it’s sometimes difficult to assess the significance of decisions that are made on a daily basis and the effects they have on people involved. He said his only concern was whether there would be an appearance of unfairness to Heather Opel because he had ruled against her in juvenile court.

It’s unclear what effect the decision will have on another teen in the case. Marriam D. Oliver, also 14, of Everett remains charged with first-degree murder and could serve 20 years if convicted.

In addition, a 13-year-old boy from Marysville has been found guilty and will remain in custody until he is 21.

Kyle Boston, 15, of Arlington has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and Jeff Grote, 17, Heather Opel’s former boyfriend, has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447

or send e-mail to haley@heraldnet.com.

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