Jury deliberates whether fatal car crash was murder

EVERETT — A jury began deliberating Wednesday in the murder trial of a man accused of causing a deadly crash while trying to outrun Bothell police officers in downtown Everett.

Rachael Kamin, a nurse, was driving home on Mother’s Day 2013 after her shift at Providence Regional Medical Center’s Pacific Avenue Campus. She sustained a fatal head injury and died two days later. She is survived by her husband and two children.

Joseph Strange, 35, is accused of first-degree murder, a rare charge in a fatal car crash. The charge was filed under the theory that Strange caused Kamin’s death “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.”

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow alleges that Strange created a grave risk of death when he hit two cars, ran red lights and drove up to 90 mph on Evergreen Way all in an attempt to escape capture.

Strange was driving a stolen pickup truck that night. He was under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections after being released from prison about seven months earlier for possessing a stolen vehicle. He has more than a dozen prior felony convictions.

Lawyers on Wednesday used part of their closing arguments to characterize the actions of Bothell police officers Mark Atterbury and Shawn Kunkel, the two primary officers involved in the pursuit.

Atterbury first spotted Strange sitting in an idling truck outside a Bothell motel. The license plates on the truck were stolen. The officer attempted to stop Strange who raced off onto I-405. A sergeant called off the pursuit. Atterbury and Kunkel turned off their lights and sirens but followed Strange, who exited onto northbound I-5 and then got off at 164th Street SW. Strange drove into the parking lot of a gas station. That’s where he crashed into a Ford Taurus and backed into Atterbury’s patrol car. The pursuit picked again up as Strange headed north on the freeway.

The Bothell officers bent the rules and pursued Strange, Darrow said. They should have stopped chasing him, and the officers have had to answer for their actions with their bosses, or possibly as part of a civil lawsuit, Darrow said.

“But today’s the day for the defendant to answer for his actions,” he said.

Strange made the decision to run, to drive with extreme recklessness and endanger the lives of multiple people. He is responsible for killing Kamin, Darrow said.

Snohomish County public defender Donald Wackerman said his client bears some criminal responsibility for Kamin’s death. He is guilty of second-degree manslaughter, Wackerman told jurors. He was negligent, but not reckless, he said.

There is no evidence that Strange knew there was an “extremely high risk” that someone would die as he sped along Evergreen Way, the lawyer said. The cops didn’t act like it was dangerous that night as they continued to chase after a truck with stolen license plates. They didn’t communicate any extreme dangers as they called out their speeds and road and traffic conditions to a sergeant monitoring the pursuit.

“No one that night was aware of the risk,” Wackerman said.

Jurors were not told that Atterbury was suspended for a day for his involvement in the pursuit. Bothell Police Chief Carol Cummings concluded that the officer misjudged the situation, but that was not a willful or deliberate act of wrongdoing.

Wackerman on Wednesday urged jurors to critically examine the officers’ testimony. Their statements after the pursuit are not supported by the radio traffic from the night of the crash. The murder charge is built on the testimony of two “suspect officers,” whose statements don’t jibe with the video footage from the gas station, Wackerman said. They knew that they could face liability.

“Clearly if the officers complied with policy there would not have been a high speed pursuit up Evergreen Way. There would have been no death of Ms. Kamin,” Wackerman said.

Yet, he went on to tell the jurors that the officers weren’t on trial.

“Their misdeeds do not excuse Mr. Strange,” Wackerman said.

His client bears some criminal responsibility, but it is a “grand leap” to call what he did murder, he said.

Strange was driving 90 mph in a 30 mph zone, disregarding red lights, Darrow countered. What did he think was going to happen? He watched himself crash into the Ford Taurus and Atterbury’s patrol car. He had to have known that his actions were endangering others, Darrow said.

The officers misjudged the situation, rating the need to apprehend him too high and the danger to the public too low, Darrow said.

“Their failure to judge that situation does not absolve the defendant,” he said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

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