Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry retires

EVERETT — As the trial began each morning, Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry often would come to the bench with six or seven law books tucked under his arm.

It was 1993, and he’d only been on the bench about a year when he was assigned to preside over the trial of Lynwood Pelot III. The man was accused of abducting and raping two young girls and leaving one along a snowy mountain road where she could have died.

The case was challenging. There were the child witnesses to consider. And before the trial even began, Pelot became so disruptive that extensive arrangements were made in case that behavior continued in front of the jury.

Castleberry had marked the law books ahead of time in anticipation of the issues he expected the lawyers to raise.

“I knew that if he didn’t make it through all the books that day, I’d missed something,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern said.

Castleberry’s reputation for being prepared and well-versed in the law would follow him for the next 20 years.

“He’s passionate about justice and seeing the right thing happen. He gets offended when that doesn’t happen,” Superior Court Judge David Kurtz said.

Castleberry, 67, retired from the bench Tuesday.

After more than 20 years as a trial attorney and another 20 years as a judge, Castleberry says it’s time for a new chapter in his life.

He’s not walking away from the legal world, however. He plans to work a couple of days a week as an arbitrator and mediator with the Everett law firm of Adams and Duncan.

He plans to spend his other free time chasing after his grandson, playing more golf and coming up with new adventures to share with his daughter.

Castleberry and his wife, Mary Jo, came to Snohomish County in 1973, shortly after he left the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Castleberry worked for about two years with the Snohomish County Public Defender’s Association, where he eventually served as the director. He moved into private practice, first with Williams, Novack, and Hansen. Later he became a partner in the law firm of Newton, Knight, Adams, and Castleberry.

He was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1992.

“I enjoy the courtroom. I enjoy good trials with good attorneys, whether it’s criminal or civil,” Castleberry said.

He compared watching a good trial to being a spectator at a prize fight.

“It’s a fascinating process when it’s done right,” Castleberry said. “I still think when it comes to disputed factual issues, a trial remains the best way to resolve what truly did or didn’t happen.”

He enjoyed the intellectual challenge that came with the job of knowing and properly applying the law. He also enjoyed anticipating the potential problems or legal issues before the attorneys even raised them.

“He knew what I was going to do before I knew what I was going to do,” Stern said.

Stern recalled in the Pelot case, Castleberry brought closed-circuit television to the courthouse before there was such a thing in place. Pelot had acted up in pre-trial hearings, including threatening to kill the judge.

Castleberry anticipated that Pelot’s misbehavior would make it necessary to have him moved beyond the watchful eyes of the jury. Castleberry arranged a special room, where Pelot could be strapped to a chair that was bolted to the floor, and allowed to watch the proceedings in real time via video. Pelot behaved himself and the special measures never became necessary. Castleberry eventually sentenced Pelot to 75 years in prison for his crimes.

Sometimes Castleberry was faced with the occasional surprise that no one could have predicted.

That was the case in 2000 when he presided over the death-penalty sentencing trial of Charles Finch.

A jury in 1995 convicted Finch of the murders of sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard and a blind man, Ronald Modlin, near Cathcart. The jurors sentenced Finch to death for the 1994 killings. The state Supreme Court threw out the sentence five years later because jurors had seen Finch wearing handcuffs and leg restraints.

The convictions were upheld, but a new sentencing trial was ordered.

Finch asked jurors for mercy, but didn’t directly ask them to spare his life. A few hours later, he jumped headfirst from a second-floor balcony at the jail. He wound up in a coma.

Castleberry remembered getting the late-night phone call. It was up to him to decide what to do next. The case was scheduled to go to the jury. In the end, he decided to let the jury deliberate, instead of declaring a mistrial.

Finch “was in critical condition, but we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Castleberry said.

Jurors were unable reach a unanimous decision.

Finch eventually regained consciousness but declined life-saving measures and, within days, died of his injuries.

Reflecting back at the statement Finch made in court hours before he jumped, Castleberry said the convicted killer seemed to be saying goodbye.

“That’s a case that surprised me,” the judge said.

Castleberry said he learned early on to not second-guess the decisions he made on the bench. He would study, contemplate and let them settle for a couple of days before making his ruling, to make sure he was comfortable with his decision.

“Once I made a decision, very seldom did I go back and revisit it. It made it easier to make the next decision,” he said.

Castleberry is extremely smart, his colleagues and lawyers said. He has book smarts and common sense, a combination that served the community well, they said.

“There are judges on the bench as smart as Castleberry, but I guarantee there are none smarter than him,” Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said.

Former defense attorney Marybeth Dingledy said she always felt like she could approach Castleberry with concerns or questions.

“I also felt like I had a fair shake in his courtroom and knew he was going to follow the law. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always thought he treated me fairly,” said Dingledy, who was appointed to fill the vacant seat left by Castleberry.

That’s not to say Castleberry couldn’t be grouchy. More than one lawyer was on the receiving end of a stern lecture from Castleberry about the importance of being on time, not wasting the court’s time, being prepared and not standing in an area of the courtroom where a sign clearly reads, “absolutely no standing in this area.”

“He had the reputation of being a tiger on the bench. He didn’t suffer fools lightly. I think what folks don’t always see … is the man with a great heart and compassion,” Kurtz said.

His compassion and kindness came through when he presided over the juvenile drug court, his colleagues said. He was a father figure to kids, who often didn’t have dads in their lives. His sense of humor also won teens over.

Presiding over drug court gave him an opportunity to advocate for the kids, Castleberry said.

“You’re extremely pleased and proud when they succeed and take it to heart more when they don’t,” he said.

Roe also remembers the kindness that Castleberry showed the young witnesses who came to testify about the sexual abuse that they had suffered.

“He went out of his way to be kind to children,” Roe said. “You knew if you went with a kid in front of Castleberry, he wasn’t going to do anything to make it harder on that kid than it already was.”

Castleberry cared about the job in a way that made him mindful of the image of the bench, Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman said.

“He always wanted to make sure we presented a good, professional, unbiased image as a court,” McKeeman said.

He mentored other judges, sharing his knowledge and experience, recently retired Superior Court Judge Kenneth Cowsert said.

“The bench is losing a good man,” Cowsert said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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