By Jim Haley
A judge who was asked to step down from presiding over an aggravated murder case because he knows too much about it said he will make that decision next week.
The question for Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Charles French was posed as a result of a motion by the attorneys for Barbara Opel, 38, who is charged in the stabbing and beating death of Jerry Heimann, 64, of Everett.
She is accused of recruiting five teen-agers to help her kill and rob Heimann. It’s an aggravated murder case, and prosecutors are considering whether to ask for the death penalty.
Brian Phillips, one of Opel’s lawyers, argued Friday that French has too much knowledge about the case after presiding over a lengthy proceeding in Snohomish County Juvenile Court. At the time, he decided two 14-year-old girls and a 15-year-old boy should be tried as adults. French kept the case of a 13-year-old boy in Juvenile Court, where the penalties would be much less severe.
The fifth teen, a 17-year-old boy, was automatically kept in adult court because of his age and the severity of the crime.
Phillips said attorneys for the juveniles kept "throwing blame at Barbara Opel" in Juvenile Court without giving her a chance to respond.
He told the judge that French will have to make numerous decisions on evidence and on pretrial motions in his client’s case.
Although he made it clear he didn’t believe French would be deliberately unfair, some other reasonable person might conclude otherwise because of the judge’s knowledge of the case.
"It could appear to a reasonable person that Ms. Opel will not get a fair trial," Phillips said. Maintaining appearance of fairness "is fundamental to the rule of law in our society."
Phillips, who frequently appears before French, said he didn’t enjoy asking the judge to recluse himself.
In a separate decision last week, French stepped aside to let another judge handle the murder trial of Opel’s 14-year-old daughter, Heather.
Prosecutors said they don’t believe there is an appearance of fairness problem in either the Barbara or Heather Opel cases.
However, deputy prosecutor George Appel said it might make sense for just one judge to handle all the remaining defendants in the case because of its complexity.
Because French stepped aside in the Heather Opel case, Appel suggested that French do the same with her mother so the same new judge could handle both cases. French said he would let the attorneys know his decision in writing next week.
A second 14-year-old girl remains charged with first-degree murder.
Two others, ages 15 and 17, have pleaded guilty, and a 13-year-old boy was found guilty in Snohomish County Juvenile Court.
You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447
or send e-mail to email@example.com.