Decision in Starr murder case will take two weeks

Defense wants murder charge dismissed over use of informant in jail

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: July 16, 2013, 7:38 PM

 

A decision on whether to dismiss a first-degree murder charge against Matthew E. Starr, accused of robbing and killing his roommate in February 2012, is expected in the next two weeks.

Clark County Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick said he needs time to research case law and review the facts of the case before ruling on the motion by Starr’s attorney, John Henry Browne, to dismiss the charge because detectives put an informant in Starr’s jail cell.

Starr is accused of robbing Joshua R. Schenk and shooting him twice after they went target shooting near Vancouver Lake with Starr’s two friends. Starr said Schenk was first shot accidentally when one of the other men slipped. He said he then shot Schenk in the back of the head to put him out of his misery.

After Schenk died, his friend Zachary Mattson allegedly helped Starr drag the body to a resting place about 4 or 5 feet away, and cover it with a plastic tarp, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in court against Mattson.

Charges against Mattson — including rendering criminal assistance, tampering with evidence, making false statements, obstruction of a law enforcement officer and intimidating a witness — were dropped in February pending further investigation, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu, but could be filed against him again the future.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Browne said Vancouver police detectives violated Starr’s constitutional rights to have the assistance of an attorney during questioning and to remain silent when they placed informant Dion Ward in Starr’s cell in the Clark County Jail.

Browne said Ward, acting as an agent of the state, allowed the state to “confront the accused without counsel,” said Browne, citing case law.

“I don’t think anyone with a straight face can say there isn’t agency in this case,” he said.

There was an agreement between detectives and Ward that Ward would provide information in exchange for help in persuading a prosecutor to dismiss a charge against Ward that he violated a no-contact order, Browne said.

Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson said Tuesday there’s no evidence that detectives instructed Ward to ask Starr questions while Starr and Ward bunked together Nov. 18-20, or that detectives gained any information from their stay together.

On Nov. 20, Vu learned of the living arrangement and requested that the inmates immediately be separated because Ward was a potential witness.

After that, Detective Wally Stefan said he told Ward they wouldn’t use him as an informant because they couldn’t corroborate his information. Detectives and prosecutors said they were concerned all along about Ward’s credibility because of his extensive criminal record and his motive to resolve his own criminal case.

Browne has also argued that information from Ward led detectives to Zackery Ray Searcy, who has pleaded guilty to driving Starr and Mattson after they disposed of Schenk’s body.

Vu and detectives said they learned of Searcy from Starr’s former friend, Patrick Forbes, about seven months before Ward identified Searcy as the possible driver in the case.

Forbes said in a phone interview Tuesday that he didn’t bring up Searcy’s name; detectives did. They asked him if he knew Searcy.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I knew him,’ ” Forbes said. “‘He was a friend of (Starr and Mattson). He was always with (Starr).’ ”

“I had no knowledge of who was there or who was doing what (at the time of Schenk’s death),” Forbes said.

Jackson also noted that Ward identified Searcy as the potential driver during a recorded interview with detectives Oct. 16, which was a month before Starr and Ward bunked together in the same cell.

Detectives had other leads on Searcy, including cellphone records of Starr and Mattson, according to a probable cause affidavit, and had attempted to contact Searcy before their recorded interview Oct. 16 with Ward.

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