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Guilty Again

A jury took about three hours to find former Oak Harbor resident James Alexander guilty of assaulting and torturing his 21-month old son to death in 1991.

The 12 jurors in Island County Superior Court returned a verdict of guilty of homicide by abuse and first-degree assault Wednesday. Moreover, they found there were “aggravating factors” that allow a judge to impose an exceptionally long sentence.

Under the standard sentencing range, the 46-year-old former Navy man faces from 20 years and 10 months to 27 years and nine months. But, with the aggravating factors, the judge could hand him an exceptional sentence of up to life in prison. A sentencing hearing will be held later this year.

Prosecutors are extremely pleased with the verdict. The case has statewide ramifications since it involved several complex legal issues, most notably the state Supreme Court’s controversial Andress decision.

“This is really cutting edge law for this little place,” said Chief Criminal Prosecutor Steve Selby, who tried the case with Deputy Prosecutor Arlene Anderson. “This is really big.”

In fact, Alexander may be the first case reversed on Andress in which the defendant was re-tried and found guilty of an even more serious crime.

In 2002, the justices ruled in the Andress case, throwing out the part of the felony murder statue that allowed prosecutors to charge someone with murder for causing an unintentional death during an assault. As a result, Alexander ended up back in Island County court.

In other counties, the Andress decision has set convicted murderers free.

Instead of re-trying the defendants, prosecutors allowed defendants to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, which used to hold a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Several of the cases have been remarkably similar to the Alexander homicide. Wednesday, convicted baby-killer Adam Bartlett walked out of King County Superior Court a free man, having only served half of his sentence. His murder conviction was vacated under Andress, so prosecutors charged him with manslaughter.

Like Alexander, Bartlett was convicted of beating two different children; one ended up dead.

Early this year, 44-year-old David Crane walked out of a Snohomish County courtroom after serving only 18 years of a 60-year sentence for the beating death of a 3-year-old boy. He also pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Noreen Erlandson, a Bothell nurse, only served 12 years of a 40-year sentence for beating her 2-year-old daughter to death.

Craig Platt, Alexander’s defense attorney, tried to get his client convicted of manslaughter. Since Alexander has already served 14 years of his 25-year sentence, a manslaughter conviction would free him.

At one point, Alexander nearly walked out the courtroom doors a free man. Platt asked Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill to hand Alexander a directed verdict of manslaughter.

She agreed, but then in an unusual decision, reversed herself.

During the trial, Platt urged the jury to convict Alexander of the lesser-included charge of manslaughter. He argued that his client’s crimes did not fit the definition of homicide by abuse.

Under the law, “a person is guilty of homicide by abuse if, under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life, the person causes the death of a child ... and the person has previously engaged in a pattern or practice of assault or torture of said child.”

The trial cost the county just over $4,000 for things like travel costs and lodging. Witnesses had to be flown in from all over the nation.

Prosecutor Greg Banks said the costs would have been much higher, but three medical experts decided not to bill the county for their time.

“It is a testament to their commitment to the safety of children that they would forego substantial expert fees for which they were entitled,” he said. “I am grateful for their expertise and generosity.”

Selby said prosecutors haven’t decided how much time they will ask the judge to impose on Alexander at the sentencing hearing. He said he’s in the process of researching sentences given out in similar cases.

But even after the sentencing hearing, prosecutors predict that the Alexander case will be with them for many years to come. Selby has already argued the case before the Appeals Court twice and he expects to do it again.

“We have broken new ground on many legal issues, and I expect the appeals to go on for some time...” Banks said in a press release. “I am confident that, with (Judge Churchill) on the bench, Mr. Alexander received a fair trial. I believe that, at the end of the appeals that are sure to follow, Mr. Alexander will still be in prison where he belongs.”

In the meantime, Selby said he is getting ready to re-try Jerry Lee Farrow, a Michigan man who shot and killed a Navy woman, Faith Ellison, in 2001. His second-degree murder conviction was also vacated because of the Andress decision.

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

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