Thursday, June 1, 2006

White Supremacist's 1st Degree Murder Conviction Aff'd

Today Division 2 affirmed the conviction of a white supremacist for aggravated first degree murder. State v. Monschke, --- P.3d ---, 2006 WL 1492975 (Wash. App. June 1, 2006)(Quinn-Brintnall, J.), Westlaw, Washington Courts.

The charge stemmed from a severe beating of a homeless man on the railroad tracks near the Tacoma Dome in 2003. Three or four assailants were involved (one may have only observed as the others beat the man with baseball bats and a 38-pound rock). The victim died after 20 days on life support. Under a plea agreement, three of them pleaded guilty -- two to first-degree murder and one (the one who was less actively involved) to second-degree murder -- and agreed to testify against the defendant.

The defendant raised a number of issues on appeal, including:

  • White supremacy as a "group." Someone can be found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder if any one of several factors is found. Here, it was:
    "The person committed the murder to obtain or maintain his or her membership or to advance his or her position in the hierarchy of an organization, association, or identifiable group."
    RCW 10.95.020(6). White supremacy doesn't have a formal hierarchy of ranks (like the Boy Scouts, say) or membership dues (like the Elks) or a structured system of job categories (like the federal civil service). Nonetheless, the court found that the defendant's desire to improve his status among people in the movement satisfied the statute.
  • Sufficiency of the evidence. The court was satisfied. (I'll mention here that a lot of cases about criminal procedure, evidence, and trial practice have distressing facts. The court's recital of facts here was particularly disturbing. Not that any murder if nice, but this was brutal.)
  • The court's requirement that the defendant wear a stun belt under his clothes during trial. This was permissible. The judge had witnessed a violent outburst by the defendant and he had been violent in the county jail.
  • White supremacy evidence as impermissible under ER 404(b). The court found no abuse of discretion. It was relevant to motive and intent, and the court instructed the jury appropriately.
  • Expert testimony about white supremacist groups. Also OK.
  • Alleged prosecutorial misconduct. The defendant argued that the prosecutor impermissibly characterized one of the witnesses -- a former co-defendant -- as a nice person who wouldn't do any harm. But the prosecutor had also elicited testimony that she had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. And, in any event, defense counsel did not object at trial.
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