Trial on hold in Finch case

By SCOTT NORTH

Herald Writer

A convicted double murderer’s sentencing trial was put on hold Monday after a Snohomish County judge was told the man appears to be dying from complications after an Oct. 25 suicide attempt.

Charles Ben Finch, 51, was in grave condition at an Everett hospital, apparently undergoing respiratory failure despite being hooked up to a machine that was breathing for him. Doctors expect him to survive at most a matter of days.

Finch was paralyzed and has been on life-support systems since he jumped from a second-floor balcony inside the Snohomish County Jail. He was being held there while a jury heard evidence how he killed a sheriff’s deputy and a blind man in August 1994.

Finch developed an infection in his lungs over the weekend, and his condition declined markedly Sunday evening, raising doubts over whether he is likely to survive much longer, Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry was told.

Castleberry had been scheduled to rule Monday whether closing arguments should occur in Finch’s death-penalty sentencing trial, despite his hospitalization for critical injuries. But the judge said it would be neither "prudent or practical" to continue with Finch apparently slipping toward death.

Lawyers on both sides of the case expressed sadness.

The case "has been a tragedy from day one," deputy prosecutor Michael Downes said. His thoughts went out to the families of Finch’s victims, as well as the killer’s relatives.

Defense attorneys are surprised and saddened that the man they fought to keep alive attempted to take his own life, said Bill Jaquette, director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

"It affects us personally, because we’ve certainly developed a relationship with Charlie, and also professionally, because we are just at sea on how to go from here," he said.

Castleberry reached his decision to put Finch’s trial on hold after hearing from one of the man’s doctors during a telephone court hearing.

Dr. Jeffery Winningham said the oxygen level in Finch’s blood began declining Sunday and remained at a perilous level Monday morning. Finch was not responding to treatment, and in time that will cause significant damage to his organs, including his brain.

The man faces "an extremely grim prognosis overall," Winningham said.

"I think there is a much stronger likelihood that he could die within the next 24 hours," he said at one point. "Sometimes this can go on for a couple of days. I would be very surprised if he goes much longer than that."

Jurors had listened to nearly three weeks of testimony about how Finch murdered sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard, 34, and a blind man, Ronald Modlin, on Aug. 15, 1994.

Finch was convicted of the murders and sentenced to die in 1995. But the state Supreme Court tossed out the sentence in 1999 because jurors had seen him in handcuffs and a nylon hobble. The underlying convictions were not affected.

The sole question in Finch’s new trial was whether he should receive a death sentence, or life in prison without possibility of release.

Jurors originally had been scheduled to begin deliberating on Thursday. But they were sent home for the weekend after Finch’s Wednesday evening suicide attempt.

The judge sent jurors home again on Monday after informing them about Finch’s leap and the grim prospects for his recovery.

Most of the jury panel showed little reaction when told that Finch had attempted to take his own life, but one man looked down and slowly shook his head.

Hours before jumping, Finch had made a personal and articulate plea for jurors to show mercy in his case. He apologized for the "terrible thing" he had done to Modlin and Kinard, and said he knew that he should never be free.

Finch had been let out of his jail cell and was walking alone to the shower when he climbed atop of a second-floor railing and hurled himself over a drop of at least 15 feet.

He caromed off a wall and landed on his head and neck, according to court papers.

When police searched his cell, they found a calendar date book with the word "Dead" entered for Oct. 25.

Prosecutors were prepared to argue Monday that Finch’s trial should head toward its conclusion because he has voluntarily absented himself through his suicide attempt. The defense was ready to ask for a mistrial because Finch is unable to assist his lawyers.

Both sides agreed with the judge that based on Finch’s apparent decline, nothing should happen Monday.

Jaquette said he hopes there won’t be closing arguments in the case.

"If we have to proceed it is just going to be pure theater because it is a meaningless exercise," he said. ”That is not what court is supposed to be. I think Mr. Finch is going to die. That is what I’ve been told. And that is going to be the end of it, regardless."

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