Jail informant may derail murder trial

Defense says cellmate's reports were used to unjustly build a case

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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photoMatthew E. Starr leans back in his chair during a break Monday in a motion hearing to dismiss murder charges against him in Clark County Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick's courtroom.

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The defense and prosecution rested Monday in a defense motion to dismiss murder charges against Matthew E. Starr because Vancouver police detectives placed an informant in Starr's jail cell.

Starr, 20, is accused of robbing and murdering his roommate, Joshua R. Schenk, in February 2012 near Vancouver Lake. Starr claimed the death was a mercy killing after Schenk was wounded in a target-shooting accident.

Starr's well-known Seattle attorney, John Henry Browne, and Clark County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson will make the equivalent of closing arguments in the motion today.

Browne argues that placing informant Dion Ward in Starr's cell in Clark County Jail violated Starr's constitutional rights to remain silent and to have the assistance of an attorney during questioning. He began presenting evidence in the motion June 26. The hearing resumed Monday after a break due to scheduling conflicts.

Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu testified Monday that Ward provided only one piece of credible evidence -- the identity of a driver who took Starr and others to dispose of Schenk's body.

Browne has argued that without Ward as an informant, investigators might never have located driver Zackery Ray Searcy, who has pleaded guilty to first-degree rendering criminal assistance, and is now a potential prosecution witness.

But Vu testified that another witness, Patrick Forbes, had identified Searcy seven months earlier.

Vu said Ward was never confirmed as a prosecution witness because investigators hadn't been able to corroborate any of the other information he gave. In exchange for information, Ward wanted to be released from jail on a charge of violating a no-contact order, according to multiple witnesses.

Vancouver police Detectives Wally Stefan and Lawrence Zapata also testified Monday that Forbes identified Searcy as the driver on March 15, 2012, about seven months before Ward did.

The detectives acknowledged that they arranged for Ward to bunk with Starr in Starr's cell between Nov. 18 and 20. But Starr had initiated the arrangement in a Nov. 15 request to the jail administration, Stefan testified.

"There was no encouragement from our part for (Ward) to do anything," Zapata said.

Browne, however, noted that detectives waited until January to interview Searcy and that Stefan had written "Starr/Ward" in an email subject line referring to a January interview with Searcy. Zapata also had written in a report that in October, "a source came forward and offered information on Searcy, which compelled us to make a concerted effort to locate him." Stefan said that source was Ward.

Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick said he hasn't decided whether he'll rule on Browne's motion immediately.

Another issue Melnick must decide is whether Vu may continue to prosecute the case, given that Browne could call Vu as a witness. Jackson made a motion Monday to prohibit Browne from calling Vu as a witness.

Starr's trial was scheduled to begin Monday, but has been rescheduled to Dec. 2 because of the pending motion and Browne's high-profile schedule. Browne is representing U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in sentencing hearings in August. Bales, who was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, pleaded guilty June 5 to the predawn massacre of unarmed civilians, including nine children, on March 11, 2012, in two villages in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Browne also has defended serial killer Ted Bundy and "Barefoot Bandit" Colton Harris-Moore.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.