Murder defendant Matthew E. Starr’s well-known attorney argued Thursday to dismiss charges against his client because Vancouver police detectives placed an informant in Starr’s jail cell.
In April 2012, Starr retained Seattle attorney John Henry Browne to defend him against accusations he robbed and murdered his roommate, Joshua R. Schenk, in February 2012 near Vancouver Lake. Browne is known for representing other high-profile murder defendants, including U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, perpetrator of the Afghanistan war’s most high-profile massacre, in March 2012.
Browne said Thursday that placing an informant in Starr’s cell in the Clark County Jail violated Starr’s constitutional rights to remain silent and to have the assistance of an attorney during questioning.
Informant Dion Ward testified that after he was booked into the jail in June 2012, he made contact with Starr because Browne had been Ward’s attorney in the past. Ward said he spoke to Starr through a slit in Starr’s cell door when Ward was released from his cell for an hour or two.
At some point, Starr spilled some details about Schenk’s killing, Ward said. Ward reached out to Vancouver police and offered to snitch on Starr in exchange for Ward’s release from jail on a charge of violating a no-contact order. Ward said he also made a similar request in a letter to the prosecutor.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu testified that he declined to make a cooperation deal with Ward until detectives had independently corroborated information Ward had already provided. Ward also has an extensive criminal history.
In an Oct. 16, 2012, recorded interview with detectives, Ward passed on information that Zackery Ray Searcy might have been involved in the disposal of Schenk’s body. Searcy was subsequently charged with rendering criminal assistance and is listed as one of the prosecution’s witnesses.
That same month, Vancouver police Detectives Wally Stefan and Lawrence Zapata took Ward on a road trip to the lake to help find the murder weapon, but they didn’t find it, Ward said.
On Nov. 15, 2012, Starr requested to be released from protective custody and to room with Ward in a regular cell. The request was denied because of concerns about Starr’s safety, said jail Commander Kim Beltran.
Later that month, the detectives asked Ward if he still wanted to room with Starr, and then asked Ward to get more information out of Starr, Ward testified.
At the detectives’ request, Ward was placed in a protective custody cell with Starr from Nov. 18 to Nov. 20, Beltran testified.
Vu said he didn’t know Ward had been placed with Starr until Nov. 20. At that point, he said, he asked that the inmates immediately be separated because Ward was a potential material witness.
Vu said he knew the defense could argue that the placement violated Starr’s constitutional rights.
Effectively, Browne said, Starr was being questioned by an agent of the state, without his knowledge, all day for three consecutive days inside a jail cell.
Testimony in the motion hearing resumes July 15. The detectives in the case are expected to testify then.
Clark County Superior Court Judge Richard Melnick ordered that Vu be temporarily removed from the case until Melnick rules on Browne’s motion. Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson has been cross-examining witnesses during the pending motion.
According to a probable cause affidavit filed by Detective Wally Stefan of the Vancouver Police Department, Starr allegedly said he went target shooting with Schenk and two others on Feb. 29, 2012, near Vancouver Lake. Starr told police he stumbled and accidentally discharged his rifle because his finger was on the trigger. The bullet struck Schenk in the back of the head, he said, and Schenk dropped to the ground.
Starr then told police he thought that Schenk may be suffering, so he shot Schenk again in the top of the head because emergency help was more than five minutes away, Stefan wrote.
Starr’s trial will be delayed until the fall because Browne is representing Bales in sentencing hearings this summer. Bales 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.