Supreme Court ruling frees woman
Ex-nurse one of first affected by change in 'felony murder' charge
By SAM SKOLNIK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER 12/09/2004
A Bothell nurse sentenced to 40 years in prison for beating her toddler daughter to death walked free yesterday, released after 14 years behind bars because of a state Supreme Court decision that could have similar results for hundreds of other convicted murderers.
The Snohomish County Superior Court judge who released Noreen Erlandson from prison yesterday conceded that his hands were tied.
The Supreme Court's decision to strike as unconstitutional the "felony murder" charge -- which occurred when an assault caused an unintended death – left Judge Thomas Wynne "little discretion in the matter," he said.
Wynne agreed to a deal worked out by prosecutors and Erlandson's attorney in which the woman's murder conviction was struck and she instead agreed to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
The maximum sentence for the charge, as the law was written when Erlandson killed her daughter, Kayla, in April 1991, was 10 years in prison, four fewer than she has already served.
So yesterday, she was set free, apparently to drive across the country with a friend she made in prison.
Erlandson was one of the first of 11 such defendants in Snohomish County, 99 from King County and close to 200 elsewhere in the state who could be released or at least get new trials.
Prosecutors have cried out that the rulings could prematurely free scores of cop killers, child beaters and other murderers who have been justly convicted.
"These trials were held, and then scrutinized and upheld, and then just to change the rules -- there's something fundamentally unfair about it," said Mark Roe, chief criminal deputy in the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office.
"Justice was done, and now it is being undone."
At yesterday's hearing, Erlandson's attorney, David Zuckerman of Seattle, responded that many of the prisoners about to be set free never intended to kill anyone and should have been charged with manslaughter instead of murder.
"What it means is that they'll now receive an appropriate sentence as opposed to an excessive one," said Zuckerman, who also represents 13 men affected by the last month's Supreme Court ruling.
In 2002, while deciding the case of a King County man, Shawn Andress, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling decided that an assault that led to an unintended death could not be the reason Andress was charged with murder.
Last month, the court's justices made the 2002 decision retroactive, meaning that in similar situations dating to 1976, killers could either be released outright after their old convictions were scrapped -- like Erlandson -- or at a minimum, they could demand a new trial.
The effects will be most dramatic in King County, where prosecutors are saying that next year, their number of homicide prosecutions could double from the usual 60 to 70 cases per year.
"Our goal is to retry as many as we can," said Melinda Young, head of a new unit in the King County Prosecutor's Office that will retry the cases.
In fact, the Prosecutor's Office has been bargaining with the King County Council about how much additional staff may be necessary to fund and hire to fill the new unit, said Mark Larson, King County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor.
According to Young, the first trial her unit will face, set to begin March 1, is the case of Darrick Jennings, who shot and killed a man in south Seattle in April 2000 -- just hours, she said, after he had been convicted of a
drug-dealing charge in King County Superior Court, then released pending sentencing.
Defense attorneys concede that many of the convicted murderers in question are not now claiming absolute innocence. They just want to be able to argue that they did not intentionally try to kill their victims.
Erlandson is a different story.
More than a decade ago, a Snohomish County judge sentenced Erlandson to an exceptional sentence of 40 years in prison for the beating death April 24, 1991, of her 2-year- old adopted daughter, Kayla.
The judge in the case referred to the "extreme cruelty" inflicted on the Korean-born toddler, including a burned arm and a severe head injury.
But Erlandson has steadfastly maintained her innocence, and her supporters have long claimed the girl died from a rare form of epilepsy.
"I am not guilty of this charge," Erlandson stated again in her plea agreement released yesterday. "A jury found me guilty once, however, and there is a significant risk that a new jury would reach the same conclusion."
Wynne chastised Erlandson for not admitting to the killing, even as he was about to free her. "This court cannot find you any more responsible than it has for the death of Kayla," he said. "It is my hope that someday you accept responsibility."
Through her attorney Zuckerman, Erlandson declined to comment after the hearing.
A friend she met at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy said outside the courtroom that she and Erlandson are planning a cross-country trip in her friend's truck.