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Baby killer's sentence vacated

Island County Superior Judge Vickie Churchill on Friday had to vacate a second-degree felony murder sentence of a former Oak Harbor man who beat his 21-month-old son to death 14 years ago.

James Alexander, a former Navy man, is among the 300 or so murderers in the state whose convictions were, or will be, overturned by a pair of controversial state Supreme Court decisions.

Yet Alexander is not a free man, at least not yet, because of an Appeals Court decision that may allow prosecutors to re-try murderers on other charges, suspending the usual mandatory joinder rules. He’s being held in the Island County jail on $1 million bail.

In the Andress case, the justices reversed more than 30 years of established law in ruling that the underlying or predicate crime in a felony murder cannot be assault. In the Hinton case, the Supreme Court ruled that Andress was retroactive, so that it affects older cases like Alexander’s.

Alexander, skinny and unshaven, appeared in Island County Superior Court Friday after being transfered to the county jail from prison. He appeared in good spirits, smiling and talking with his attorney Craig Platt.

Judge Churchill said she had to choice but to vacate Alexander’s 1991 conviction for second-degree felony murder, along with his 25-year sentence.

A prosecutor, however, immediately submitted a probable cause statement, arguing that Alexander should be held of suspicion of homicide by abuse and first-degree assault. The homicide by abuse charge applies to cases in which a suspect kills a child, developmentally disabled or dependent person and there is a previous pattern of abuse.

The standard range for homicide by abuse is 250 to 333 months, which means Alexander could face an even longer sentence if convicted of the new charge.

But trying Alexander again may not be easy. Platt, a Coupeville attorney who represented Alexander in the original trial, just recently got the case and hasn’t had a chance to argue such issues as probable cause or double jeopardy. He’ll get the opportunity when Alexander is in court again this Friday.

Also, Chief Criminal Prosecutor Steve Selby admitted that the case will be difficult because of the time that has elapsed.

“These cases get more difficult as they get older,” he said. “It is costing us a fortune because we have to bring people in from all over the country.”

One person who will likely testify against Alexander is his 17-year-old stepson, who was just three years old when he watched Alexander fatally beat his little brother, Bryan Alexander. James Alexander was also convicted of criminal mistreatment in the second degree for beating his stepson.

According to the pre-sentence investigation, Alexander awoke in the morning of July 28, 1991 and immediately became angry with the two boys because they had spilled sunflower seeds. Alexander wrote in a statement to a community corrections officer that he punched Bryan with a closed fist twice. Also, Alexander admitted to punching the older child with a fist, as well as spanking both the boys.

Alexander also wrote that Bryan was injured when he was fighting with his brother over a toy.

Investigators, however, believed the truth was much more sinister.

After the beatings, both boys were transported to Whidbey General Hospital and then airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where Bryan later died.

In court, experts disagreed about the cause of death. A medical examiner and a pediatrician testified that the little boy died from a severe head injury. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that the boy’s body had 22 contusions or injuries, including 10 head injuries. A doctor at Harborview, who performed surgery to remove Bryan’s fractured pancreas and perforated gall bladder, said Bryan died from a “severe head injury.”

A neurological surgeon speculated Bryan died from a cardiac arrest caused by a blow to the abdomen.

The pre-sentence report states that the boys’ mother said Alexander was abusive to the children and that Bryan had evidence of broken ribs previous to the fatal abuse.

After the original trial, former Prosecutor Bill Hawkins argued that the judge should give Alexander an exceptional sentence, beyond the 134 month to 178 month standard range, because of aggravating factors. Namely, Hawkins argued that the crime was made worse by the fact that Bryan was “particularly vulnerable” because of his age; the abuse of trust since Alexander was a parent; and the extraordinary impact on other members of the family, particularly the boy who witnessed the beating.

Judge Alan Hancock agreed that the crime warranted an exceptional sentence and on Jan. 3, 1992 sentenced Alexander to 25 years in prison.

In addition to the Alexander case, Island County prosecutors have been dealing with two other felony murder cases. Last month the state Appeals Court vacated the felony murder conviction of Linda Miley, a 60-year-old Camano Island who shot her boyfriend Jack Pearson, but upheld her manslaughter conviction.

Also, Jerry Farrow is serving a 30-year sentence for shooting and killing his girlfriend, an Oak Harbor resident and Navy woman named Faith Ellison. Selby said that conviction will likely be vacated also.

Together with the murder case against Oak Harbor teenager James Sanders and the paperwork stirred up by the governor’s election, Selby said county prosecutors are “extremely busy these days.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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