Luyster trial expected to run four weeks

Jury selection begins for Woodland triple-homicide case

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter

Published:

 

An approximate timeline of events based on affidavits of probable cause

May 16, 2016

Brent Luyster allegedly pistol-whips his former girlfriend, Erin Cochran, at a home in Cowlitz County.

June 22, 2016 

Washougal police take a report from Cochran, who has a no-contact order against Luyster, about his family and associates allegedly trying to locate her and their son.

Around July 1, 2016

Luyster, and his girlfriend, Andrea Sibley, move out of their Longview home and move in with his brother and mother in Woodland.

July 15, 2016

Zachary Thompson and Breanne Leigh pick up Luyster from a house in Vancouver and drive him to Joseph Lamar’s house southeast of Woodland. Sibley stays behind.

Two to three hours later, Sibley drives herself to Lamar’s house with two children. She stays outside with the vehicle.

Leigh, who’s inside the house, hears two shots fired outside. Luyster comes through the front door with a handgun and shoots her in the face. She loses consciousness.

When Leigh comes to, she finds Knight dead on the couch. She crawls away from the house and drives herself to a convenience store, where she receives help about 10:30 p.m.

A search warrant is authorized for Lamar’s house. The warrant is served, and Lamar and Thompson’s bodies are found in the gravel driveway. Both died of apparent gunshot wounds to the head. Knight’s body was found inside on the couch. Shell casings from a .45 caliber are recovered from the gravel driveway and living room floor.

Sibley’s father arrives at Lamar’s house and says his daughter is dating Luyster, and he hasn’t been able to reach her lately.

July 16, 2016

Sibley's vehicle is located about 4 p.m. by Cowlitz County deputies off of Ocean Beach Highway.

Luyster emerges from a brushy area and surrenders. Sibley and their toddler son are also located there. They were reportedly camping.

One of the most widely publicized and potentially most expensive criminal trials in recent Clark County history begins today in Superior Court.

Brent Ward Luyster — a local man who has a long, violent criminal history — faces three counts of first-degree aggravated murder in the July 15, 2016, shooting deaths of Joseph Mark Lamar, 38; Lamar’s partner, Janell Renee Knight, 43; and Zachary David Thompson, 36, at Lamar’s home southeast of Woodland.

He is also accused of wounding Thompson’s significant other, Breanne L.A. Leigh, then 32, who suffered a gunshot wound to the left side of her face.

Leigh testified earlier this month at a pretrial hearing that Thompson and Luyster were best friends.

Luyster’s attorneys plan a defense of “general denial,” according to court documents. It is unknown if he will offer an alibi. The defense is not expected to argue that Luyster suffers from diminished mental capacity.

Luyster’s trial is scheduled to take place on 15 days over the next four weeks — trial isn’t held Fridays, and the court will be closed for Thanksgiving. Jury deliberations could stretch it out further, however.

Prosecutors declined to say if Luyster was offered a plea deal to avoid trial. Should he be convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The majority of Luyster’s pretrial hearings have been heard in the courtroom of Judge Robert Lewis, who is presiding. However, the trial is reportedly being held in Judge Scott Collier’s fourth-floor courtroom, one of the largest and oldest in the Clark County Courthouse.

Court administration plans to summon a pool of about 100 jurors. Lewis previously said he will divide the group, depending on who says they have an undue hardship, such as an illness or child-care responsibilities that would interfere with their ability to serve. Those with no hardship issues will fill out a lengthy juror questionnaire while Lewis determines on an individual basis whether to excuse jurors who claim hardship.

The jurors who aren’t excused will also fill out the questionnaire. Depending on how many jurors are excused, additional jurors may be called in Tuesday and would go through the same procedure. This process will continue until the court has enough jurors to fill out the questionnaire and go forward with voir dire, a process where attorneys have a chance to question them.

What to expect

Some issues that will be addressed at the beginning of the trial include a motion by the prosecution to admit statements Luyster allegedly made to law enforcement and possibly the defense’s motion to change venue if there are problems finding enough jurors who don’t have preconceived notions about the case. The defense also indicated Thursday at Luyster’s trial readiness hearing that it may raise other issues, but those court documents had not yet been entered into the file as of Friday afternoon.

According to a witness list filed Oct. 24, the prosecution may call up to 91 witnesses to testify, including the survivor, Leigh; Luyster’s mother, Susan Dvorak; his brother, Michael Luyster; and his girlfriend and alleged accomplice, Andrea Sibley.

Prosecutors allege Sibley, 28, was sitting in a car on the premises when the shooting occurred and afterward drove away with Brent Luyster. She was sentenced to a year of community custody in September 2016 for rendering criminal assistance.

A witness list filed Oct. 20, indicates that the defense may call up to 21 witnesses to testify on behalf of its case. But a number of those witnesses overlap with the state’s list. It is not yet known if Luyster will testify. However, he did take the stand twice during a pretrial hearing earlier this month.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office declined to say what security may look like at trial, but presumably it will be tight.

Security was beefed up for Luyster’s hearings — often with more than a dozen officers inside and outside the courtroom — after he allegedly tried to escape from the Clark County Jail in February. He is charged with second-degree attempted escape, first-degree malicious mischief and possession of a weapon by a jail inmate in that case, which has not yet had a trial date set.

“The sheriff’s office is working with courthouse security staff to ensure a safe environment for all involved. We must balance the importance of providing security with the defendant’s right to a fair trial, and while we can’t discuss the specifics of our security plan, I can tell those interested we believe this trial will be safe for all involved and for those who wish to follow it,” sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike McCabe said in a written statement.

Luyster, like all defendants, has a constitutional right to be free from physical restraints when jurors are present and will be unshackled during the trial.

Costs to be determined

The total cost of holding the trial won’t be known until afterward, but it is expected to be expensive.

Jail Chief Ric Bishop declined to give an estimate of costs for security at Luyster’s trial, citing potential safety concerns, but said it’s significantly more than the average. Security costs generally come out of the budget of the sheriff’s office.

For the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, generally, trial costs involve paying deputy prosecutors and the use of experts, which are typically government employees from the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab or Western State Hospital, Prosecutor Tony Golik said. There’s no cost to the prosecutor’s office to use those government witnesses — the cost affects those offices’ full-time employee budget. The cost to pay deputy prosecutors comes from a separate budget, Golik added, and overtime is not included because deputy prosecutors are salaried, not hourly.

The court reimburses the prosecutor’s office for travel costs of witnesses, Golik said.

Luyster’s defense is at public expense. Clark County Indigent Defense Manager Ann Christian declined to provide information about the estimated cost of Luyster’s trial or the defense costs of his case to date, citing an order from Lewis.

Luyster’s previous defense team filed a motion to seal documents related to public funds used for expert services and other defense costs, and it was granted by Lewis in August 2016. The order also prohibits all non-judicial county agencies and employees from disclosing the information.

The majority of attorneys who provide indigent defense services are in private practice but are under contract with the county, and are paid flat fees for felony cases. However, the contracts do not cover homicide or persistent offender cases. Those are paid hourly, Christian said.

Vancouver attorney, Chuck Buckley, has been on Luyster’s case since March, and his second chair, Steve Rucker, joined on in June. Prior to them, Jeff Barrar of Vancouver Defenders was appointed to represent Luyster but only did so for about a day before stepping down.

Before that, Luyster was represented by attorneys Bob Yoseph and Ed Dunkerly, beginning in August 2016. Luyster was initially represented by attorney Susan Stauffer, but Yoseph was assigned to Luyster’s case because he is one of the few attorneys designated by the state Supreme Court to handle potential death penalty cases. Yoseph and Dunkerly prepared Luyster’s death penalty mitigation package.

They both stepped down from the case in March after Lewis ruled that only one attorney could stay on, following the prosecution’s decision not to pursue the death penalty. He later changed his mind and granted Buckley’s request for co-counsel.

Criminal history

Luyster is well-known to Southwest Washington law enforcement.

His criminal history dates to at least 1998, when he was 17 years old, court documents show.

In the past, he has been involved in a drive-by shooting, taking a motor vehicle without permission and has been convicted of assault, rioting while armed with a deadly weapon, malicious harassment, malicious mischief and theft, among other crimes.

He was released from the Cowlitz County Jail on June 8, 2016, about a month before the alleged triple-murder. Luyster is accused of pistol-whipping his former girlfriend, Erin Cochran, with whom he shares a child, and is facing charges of assault, harassment and illegal firearm possession. It does not appear a trial date has been set in that case.

He and Sibley are both facing federal weapons charges in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Sibley allegedly provided Luyster with at least nine firearms in the year leading up to the slayings at the Woodland home, according to a federal indictment filed July 26. She is charged with one count of aiding and abetting a felon in possession of a firearm and five counts of giving a false statement during the purchase of a firearm. Luyster is charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.