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Baby killer likely to go free

A former Oak Harbor resident who has spent 14 years in prison for killing his 21-month-old son will be free Friday, nine years earlier than his original sentence, unless the prosecutor has something creative up his sleeve.

Tuesday afternoon, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill reluctantly imposed a first-degree manslaughter verdict on 45-year-old James Alexander and rescinded a more serious charge of homicide by abuse.

“I cannot fathom how an adult can abuse a child in this manner,” Churchill said. “How a father can deliberately hurt his child. ... how a child can be hit and kicked by his father until he is dead.”

Nevertheless, Churchill said state law and a controversial Supreme Court decision leave her no choice.

Alexander’s attorney, Craig Platt of Coupeville, asked Churchill to immediately sentence Alexander. He said his client should go free right away because Alexander has already served 14 years for the crime. Platt said the maximum sentence under the manslaughter charge in 1991, when Alexander committed the crime, was 10 years.

Chief Criminal Prosecutor Steve Selby, however, asked to have more time to review his options, noting that Alexander also was convicted of criminal mistreatment in the second degree. Churchill agreed and set sentencing over to Friday.

A jury convicted Alexander of second-degree “felony” murder and criminal mistreatment in 1991. Alexander beat his toddler son, Bryan, and his step-son after they spilled sunflower seeds and milk. Both boys were hospitalized, but Bryan died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Judge Alan Hancock gave Alexander an exceptional sentence — beyond the standard range because of aggravating factors — of 25 years in prison.

Alexander is among the 300 or so murderers whose convictions were vacated as a result of two controversial state Supreme Court decisions regarding the state’s felony murder law, most notably the Andress decision. The justices basically ruled that assault cannot be the predicate or underlying offense for a murder.

According to defense attorneys, the ruling means that a person who kills another person during an assault should be charged with manslaughter, not murder, if intent cannot be proved.

Because of the Supreme Court ruling, Alexander returned to court earlier this year. Churchill vacated his murder conviction and prosecutors re-charged him with the more serious crime of homicide by abuse.

Tuesday, Platt argued a series of issues during a PowerPoint presentation, but in the end Churchill ruled that only one argument applied. Specifically, the mandatory joinder rule states that the prosecutor can only charge a person with one crime for one criminal act.

There are two exceptions to the rule. The first exception is that the prosecutor finds new evidence, but Churchill ruled that there wasn’t any such new information. The other is the “ends of justice exception” that comes into play “when truly unusual circumstance arise.” She said such is the case in the Andress decision, which reversed nearly three decades of established case law.

“This abandonment of over 25 years of unbroken line of precedence was highly unusual,” she said.

Yet Churchill ruled that Alexander could not be charged with homicide by abuse, which is a more serious charge, and instead imposed a manslaughter verdict.

Alexander showed little emotion when he won in court or when his own attorney and the judge described, in detail, the horrific ways in which he abused his children. In order to show that there was no new evidence of abuse, Churchill and Platt detailed the evidence which was known by the former prosecutor during the original trial.

They described how Alexander wouldn’t let his wife or kids go outside; how he made Bryan spend most of the time in his bedroom; that he spanked his children hard enough to cause bruising; how he throttled his children in their highchairs; that the autopsy showed Bryan had previously broken ribs, an old black eye and perfectly round burn marks near his groin.

Churchill made it clear that she wasn’t happy to have to make a decision which will likely set Alexander free.

“The court is not at all happy with the Andress decision,” she said, “and what has come down with that, but the court is required to follow the law.”

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

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