Freed in daughter's killing; High court voids 1992 conviction; Woman denies guilt, accepts plea bargain

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Date: 2004-12-09
Source: Seattle Times

Author: Rosario DazaTimes Snohomish County Bureau

EVERETT — After serving more than 12 years of a 40-year sentence for the beating death of her adopted daughter, Noreen Erlandson is again a free woman. Her release was the result of two recent Washington State Supreme Court decisions that changed the rules on hundreds of felony murder convictions based on assault.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Wynne said yesterday the high court "has left this court little choice in the matter" as he accepted amended charges against Erlandson of first-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The 52-year-old former nurse was convicted of second-degree felony murder in 1992 and given an exceptional sentence for biting, burning and fatally beating her daughter because a judge wanted to send a strong message against child abuse.

Her hair almost completely white now, Erlandson smiled and waved in handcuffs to a loyal group of friends before quietly entering a modified guilty plea to the amended charges.

"I am not guilty of this charge," she told the judge and a courtroom filled with cameras, prosecutors and victims' advocates, adding that she was accepting the plea offer because she did not want to risk a new trial. "I just want to get on with my life."

Erlandson's case is one of the first of hundreds of convictions now up for review after the state Supreme Court decided last month to retroactively apply a 2002 ruling in the case of Shawn Andress. The Andress ruling struck down a statute allowing prosecutors to win murder convictions even if death was an unintended result of an assault.

And, although the Legislature reinstated the old law in 2003, the two decisions throw into question about 300 convictions finalized between 1975 and 2002, in some cases resulting in new trials and charges.

"This court cannot find you any more responsible for Kayla's death," Wynne said, echoing the dismay expressed by Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Seth Fine at the effect of the rulings. "I hope someday you accept responsibility."

But Erlandson's lawyer, David Zuckerman, and a group of her friends maintain she is innocent and never got a fair trial.

"They stole 13 years of her life," said Janet Roderick, 49, who befriended Erlandson while the two were imprisoned at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women in Purdy, Pierce County. "They stole her medical practitioner's office. They took her life."

Roderick, a truck driver, said that after Christmas she plans to take Erlandson on the road to "see 48 United States."

Erlandson never gave up or sat idly in prison, said a Seattle friend who wished not to be identified because Erlandson will initially live with her.

Erlandson, who divorced her husband while in prison, was often visited by her son, also adopted from Korea and now a teenager. She trained as a master gardener and personal trainer, learned how to do drafting and read textbooks onto a tape recorder to keep busy, even while other inmates harassed her, her friends said.

Zuckerman said strong evidence showed Erlandson was not responsible for the more than 65 injuries found on 2½-year-old Kayla's body. He said an engineer showed that the toddler could not have broken a five-gallon water cooler by just running into it, as a baby-sitter claimed. Carl Nugent, a now-retired medical expert who was never sought out by Erlandson or her lawyers, thought the toddler suffered from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a form of epilepsy, Zuckerman said.

"Certainly it's a horrible thing when a child dies, but no one was more devastated than Noreen herself," said Zuckerman, who also argued before the Supreme Court last year on behalf of 11 of 13 defendants convicted of felony murder under the old statute.

Marian Cottrell, who, like other longtime friends, met Erlandson in a folk-dancing group, said she can understand the anger at the Supreme Court rulings by those who think Erlandson is guilty.

"I would have loved for her to get a new trial and be exonerated, but why go through that torture?" asked Cottrell, 52, who also adopted a daughter from Korea.

Mark Roe, chief criminal deputy prosecutor for Snohomish County, said he puts the responsibility of releasing people like Erlandson squarely on state Supreme Court justices. The case of David Crane, sentenced to 60 years for killing a 3-year-old, is also among those up for review, he said.

"Nobody seems to be laying the blame where it belongs, and it's not just with Noreen Erlandson," said Roe, who reviewed grisly photos of the slain toddler. "The justices are some of the most powerful elected officials in state government, but they don't seem to be held accountable for this."

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