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June 1, 2020

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Portland man sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter

Slaying of public defender was unsolved for decade

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A 29-year-old Portland man was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for the Nov. 29, 2009, killing of assistant federal public defender Nancy Bergeson in her Southwest Portland home.

Christopher Alexander Williamson pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and first-degree burglary in a case that baffled Portland detectives for a decade.

Williamson was arrested in January 2019 after a covert jailhouse recording caught one inmate bragging about his involvement in the crime to another inmate and produced an unexpected breakthrough in the mysterious homicide case.

Bergeson, 57, was killed after she surprised Williamson and a co-defendant, Justin Joseph Panek, who broke into her house and Williamson put her in a chokehold and suffocated her, according to court records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Panek, accused of burglary in the case, is scheduled to be sentenced this morning.

Panek was 18 at the time of Bergeson’s killing and Williamson was 19.

According to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, Williamson’s life expectancy is less than 10 years due to a genetic disorder. Williamson was arrested in January 2019 at a kidney center in Tualatin where he received dialysis.

In a prepared statement, District Attorney Rod Underhill said Bergeson was a “devoted mother, a passionate defense attorney and a trusted friend to many. We know Nancy’s enthusiasm and passion continues to inspire those who knew her.”

About 30 family members and friends attended Thursday’s hearing.

Bergeson’s ex-husband James Bradshaw said their daughter, Jamie Bergeson, and Nancy’s sister, Julie McCormick, addressed the court at sentencing.

“As public defenders, we appreciate a criminal justice system that considers the unique failings and strengths of the person being sentenced,” said Oregon’s Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay. “We trust and believe that happened in this case.”

On Dec. 15, 2016, Panek suddenly admitted his role in the Bergeson homicide in a conversation with another inmate at the Washington County Jail. Panek was in custody at the time on unrelated robbery charges, according to long-sealed records obtained last year that included a detective’s description of the recording and gave a detailed account of what happened.

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