Killer’s new trial gets complicated

It became apparent in court Friday that the Island County prosecutor’s case against a former Oak Harbor man accused of killing his 1-year-old son will not be opened and shut easily.

Coupeville attorney Craig Platt, who’s defending 45-year-old James Alexander for the second time in 14 years, brought up a myriad of issues at a hearing before Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill.

Prosecutors charged Alexander with homicide by abuse and first-degree assault after his original 1991 “felony” murder conviction was vacated. The state Supreme Court essentially reversed the convictions of about 300 convicted murderers last year in a ruling that overturned the felony murder statute.

The prosecution contends that there were “aggravating factors” in the case that should allow for a sentence beyond the standard range.

Friday, Platt said there are constitutional issues to consider, such as double jeopardy and missing witnesses. He stressed the importance of his client’s right to confront witnesses, which is complicated by the fact that at least one witness is dead and others live out of state.

Another Supreme Court decision, this time by the federal high court, puts another wrinkle in the case. In a 5-4 opinion handed down last June in Blakely v. Washington, the Supreme Court threw out the state’s sentencing rules that allowed judges to increase sentences beyond the “standard sentencing range” based on facts never proven before a jury.

The ruling, however, allows the possibility that a jury could impose an exceptional sentence.

Platt argued that the state currently has no structure in place for exceptional sentences. “Our position is,” he said, “that exceptional sentences cannot be imposed at this time in the state of Washington.”

If the judge does allow the prosecution to pursue an exceptional sentence, Platt argued that the court would need a bifurcated, or two-part, trial. Under this scenario, the jury would decide if Alexander is guilty of a crime in the first trial. And in a second trial, the jury would decide if he deserves an exceptionally long sentence based on certain aggravating factors. Such factors would include the fact that the victim was particularly vulnerable because of his extreme youth; that the victim was a family member and the crime occurred within sight and sound of a minor; and that Alexander had a position of trust.

Platt said it’s important that the jury doesn’t hear information relevant to an exceptional sentence — that Alexander was a “bad person” — in the regular trial since it would prejudice the jury.

Judge Churchill said that she would hold a special hearing to consider the constitutional issues and the Blakely matter before the trial, which is set for March 15.

According to court documents, Alexander beat his 21-month old son, Bryan, to death and seriously injured his 3-year-old stepson in July of 1991 because they spilled sunflower seeds.

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