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Oak Harbor man had a plan in abusing women, court rules

The Washington state Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction last week of an Oak Harbor man who raped his ex-girlfriend in 2007, but he can still appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Joseph Blue, 29, had pledged to fight his conviction for first-degree rape and second-degree strangulation during a contentious sentencing hearing in Island County Superior Court in 2008. A jury found Blue guilty of the charges after a week-long trial.

Judge Vickie Churchill scolded Blue and his family during the hearing and even predicted that the appeals court would uphold his conviction. She sentenced him to a minimum of 10 years and three months in prison.

True to his word, Blue appealed his conviction to the state appeals court. His attorneys argued that Churchill erred by allowing evidence of his previous “bad acts.” Two women who previously had relationships with Blue testified that Blue had raped, beaten and asphyxiated or choked them in similar manners.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, who handled the Blue trial, went to the appeals court two week ago to argue the case before the judges. He argued that the evidence that Blue had abused the other women in a similar manner was admissible because it showed “a common scheme or plan,” which is one of the few reasons such evidence of other bad acts can be allowed in such a trial.

Blue’s attorney, however, argued that his prior acts of violence did not prove a common scheme or plan because there was no planning involved. They show only that Blue is prone to abuse when he is angry and intoxicated, the defense argued.

The appeals court agreed with Banks and Churchill’s interpretation of the law in an unpublished opinion released March 15.

“The similarities in the manner of Blue’s attacks demonstrate a purposeful and deliberate method to punish his victims’ perceived transgressions and render them physically and emotionally incapable of resisting his control,” the opinion states. “Blue did not just beat the women in an explosion of anger. In each case, he used a strikingly similar combination of physical and sexual violence, humiliation, and fear of death through strangulation or suffocation. The similarities in the manner and circumstances of each of the attacks go beyond mere coincidence and are more naturally explained as individual manifestations of a general plan.”

In addition to affirming the rape conviction, the court ruled that the assault charge should have been merged with the rape charge, which essentially throws out the assault charge. In arguments, Banks agreed that the charges should be merged.

Banks said the case will have to be brought back to Island County Superior Court so the assault charge can be vacated, but he indicated that the sentence will remain the same.

Churchill gave Blue the maximum “indeterminate sentence” of 10 years and three months to life in prison. He must serve a minimum of 10 years and three months, without any good time, and then go before a special review board and ask to be released.

Banks said Blue has 30 days to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court.

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