The Snohomish County Superior Courthouse is pictured on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Snohomish County Superior Courthouse is pictured on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snohomish man gets 2 years for fatally shooting father during argument

James Johnston was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for firing a gunshot that killed his father.

SNOHOMISH — A Snohomish man, who shot and killed his father from inside his trailer during an argument, must serve two years in prison, a Snohomish County judge ruled this month.

Superior Court Judge Millie Judge sentenced James Johnston on Nov. 15 for shooting his father, Robert Johnston, 59, to death. A week earlier, James Johnston, 32, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. He was initially charged with second-degree murder.

James Johnston entered what’s known as an Alford plea — maintaining his innocence, but acknowledging there was enough evidence for a jury to convict him. It’s considered a conviction.

Prosecutors asked for two years in prison, while the defense recommended 1¼ years.

The defendant’s brother reportedly told detectives the defendant had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 10, but had not taken his medications for years.

In August 2022, the brother heard gunshots coming from the defendant’s trailer in the 6500 block of 57th Avenue SE, he said in a police interview. The brother told his father, and the two walked toward the trailer to see what was happening with James Johnston, according to the charges.

The brother set up a cell phone on a selfie stick to record their interaction, the charges said. After approaching the trailer, James Johnston said “stop bugging me.” Moments later, James Johnston shot at them, the charges said. The brother went into the house to retrieve a rifle from his room. When James Johnston’s brother returned to the trailer, he heard another gunshot. The dad had been shot.

A week earlier, police learned, an argument between James Johnston and his brother escalated to the point the defendant fired two shots. According to court documents, they did not call 911 out of fear that James Johnston’s mental health issues would leave police forced to shoot him.

Detectives reviewed footage from two phones James Johnston’s brother had used to record the fatal shooting.

In the footage, the father told the defendant, who was inside his trailer, to give up his gun or SWAT would respond. The father started banging on the trailer, according to the charges.

The brother reportedly yelled at James Johnston to get off the property or he would be arrested. He told James Johnston he had his gun “trained on him.” The brother told the defendant: “I know right where you are sitting, and I’m aimed at you,” according to court papers.

In the video, a gunshot rang out from the trailer. The brother told James Johnston his gun was louder, and fired it into the ground. Moments later, a gunshot hit Robert Johnston.

In an interview, James Johnston told detectives he was messing with the rifle, trying to clear a malfunction, and it went off, court documents said. He recalled pointing it at the window when the gun went off. James Johnston recalled his brother shooting his gun into the ground, but said he “did not care” and just wanted to be left alone.

In a court hearing, both parties retained firearm experts to determine whether the rifle could have malfunctioned.

The defense attorneys, David Roberson and Eli Jacobsen, had an expert test the rifle, according to court documents. The expert found multiple possible explanations for why the gun went off.

The prosecutors’ expert inspected the gun, as well. She concluded the safety of the gun did not work properly, but it was otherwise in full operating condition. She specified the gun would not fire unless the trigger was pulled. This expert said the defense’s consultant’s explanation was unlikely, according to court records.

A psychologist determined the defendant was fit to stand trial and assist in his defense, according to a mental health evaluation.

The deputy prosecuting attorney, Elise Deschenes, said the case was a tragic situation.

“This was the most just outcome,” Deschenes said.

The defense attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

James Johnston had no previous felony criminal history. He will receive credit for 15 months already served in the Snohomish County Jail.

Jonathan Tall: 425-339-3486; jonathan.tall@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @snocojon.

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