This time, a plea for death

By SCOTT NORTH

Herald Writer

Bill Jaquette spent much of the past month in a Snohomish County courtroom passionately fighting to spare a convicted murderer from a death sentence.

But today, the director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association was scheduled to be in another court making a very different argument.

This time, he’s assisting a killer who is seeking execution.

The state Supreme Court in Olympia was scheduled this morning to hear arguments regarding the death sentence of James Homer Elledge. The former Everett man, 57, was convicted and sentenced to die two years ago for the April 1998 stabbing and strangling of Eloise Fitzner at a Lynnwood church.

Elledge admitted killing Fitzner, 47, and sought the death penalty. He’s waived all appeals, but under state law the Supreme Court is conducting a mandatory review of his case.

At his October 1998 trial in Everett, Elledge told the jury "there’s no doubt in my mind that there is a very wicked part of me. And this wicked part of me needs to die."

Jaquette has been in the courtroom most recently representing Charles Ben Finch, who was in his second sentencing trial for the August 1994 murders of a sheriff’s sergeant and a blind man near Cathcart. The trial took a bizarre turn Oct. 25 when Finch attempted suicide by jumping headfirst from a high balcony inside the jail. Finch was paralyzed and unconscious in an Everett hospital when a jury on Monday announced that it could not agree on whether he should face death, a move that meant an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility of release. Whether Finch will live to serve his sentence remains unclear.

Jaquette represented Elledge at his trial two years ago and continues to be one of his attorneys. He said that he spoke with Elledge just days ago, and the death-row inmate remains firm in his resolve to seek execution.

While personally opposed to the death penalty, Jaquette said he believes it is his duty not to force his beliefs on a competent client.

"When we start making choices for people, we get into a lot of trouble," he said.

Jaquette’s stance has made him a target for criticism by some other defense attorneys. But prosecutors feel differently.

"I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Jaquette and the position he has taken in this case," said deputy prosecutor Seth Fine, who’s also working to keep Elledge’s conviction intact. "I know he has personal opposition to the death penalty, but he believes, and I think correctly, that his duty as an attorney is to pursue the objective his client decides to pursue."

Other defense attorneys attempted two years ago to intervene in the Elledge case, arguing in part that justice would not be served if the adversarial process of a trial was short-circuited by lawyers on both sides seeking the same result.

Superior Court Judge Joseph Thibodeau declined to allow other lawyers to intervene. He cited rulings from the state Supreme Court in the cases of Westley Dodd and Jeremy Sagastegui, two child killers who were executed in 1993 and 1998 after knowingly waiving appeals of their death sentences.

To assist in its review of Elledge’s case, the state’s high court has appointed lawyers to make arguments Jaquette and prosecutors won’t be raising.

Ironically, one of the attorneys appointed to that task, Carl Sonderman of Kennewick, had previously been appointed to assist Sagastegui in his keeping his death sentence intact.

Although Sonderman and another attorney filed a 72-page brief raising questions about Elledge’s death sentence, the document also makes clear that they aren’t taking issue with Jaquette.

"No aspersions are cast upon trial counsel," one footnote reads. "As a result of the decision of his client, he was put in an impossible situation. It is analogous to a terminally ill patient asking his physician to assist him in suicide. In other words, it goes against the very essence, or core of a criminal defense attorneys education, training and experience."

Jaquette is no stranger to death penalty cases, even though his path toward the courtroom was circuitous.

The fifty-something Edmonds resident originally was drawn to the study of philosophy, and for a time was a professor at a college in southern Missouri. He decided the life of an academic really wasn’t’ for him, however, and went to law school in the mid-1970s.

Jaquette was attracted to criminal law and worked in King County as a deputy prosecutor and a public defender. It was there that he handled his first capital murder case, convincing a jury in 1983 that his client deserved mercy and a sentence of life in prison without possibility of release.

Since becoming Snohomish County’s chief public defender in 1989, Jaquette has handled three death penalty cases: Finch, Elledge and Richard Mathew Clark, who is now on death row for the 1995 rape and murder of 7-year-old Roxanne Doll of Everett.

In each of those cases, Jaquette made a point of reminding jurors that the defendant, despite committing terrible crimes, still is a human being.

When not arguing in front of juries, Jaquette has said that among his reasons for opposing the death penalty is that elected prosecutors decide which defendants should risk capital punishment.

The lawyers urging the Supreme Court to throw out the death sentence in Elledge’s case argue in court papers that his punishment is out of line with other murder cases in the state. They also allege jurors were exposed to too much information about Elledge’s prior crimes.

At the time he killed Fitzner, Elledge was on parole for a 1975 murder in which he beat a 63-year-old Seattle woman to death with a hammer. Jurors also were told how his criminal career began with burglaries and thefts at age 10 and graduated to violent crime. Elledge robbed, pistol-whipped, and doused with gasoline a woman in New Mexico and then escaped from prison while serving time for that conviction.

At his trial, jurors heard a taped confession Elledge gave police, in which he admitted luring Fitzner to the church, where he worked as a janitor. Elledge said he killed the woman because he harbored simmering anger over a letter she’d written roughly a year before to his then-fiancé.

Fitzner’s note compared Elledge to a pimple, and urged the woman who later became his wife to break off ties with that "awful man."

The Supreme Court is not expected to rule on Elledge’s case for up to six months, Fine said.

If the conviction and death sentence remain intact, an execution could occur sometime next year, he said.

"All of that assumes Mr. Elledge remains firm in his decision not to oppose the death penalty," the prosecutor said, explaining that even if the state upholds a death sentence, Elledge still could decide later to launch other appeals.

Under state law, executions are by lethal injection, unless the condemned requests hanging.

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