Federal Way murder conviction overturned

RULING: Court of Appeals judge sites closed court during jury selection

May 3, 2011 

Federal Way murder conviction overturned

Joseph N. Njonge, center, and his attorney, listen to judge Laura Gene Middaugh during the sentencing for the murder of Jane Britt, Monday, July 20, 2009.

BY JOE BARRENTINE/THE NEWS TRIBUNE — The Olympian

The state Court of Appeals Monday overturned a jury's conviction that a nursing assistant killed a 75-year-old woman after she had visited her ailing husband at a Federal Way nursing home.

Joseph N. Njonge , 27, was found guilty in 2009 of killing Jane Britt and was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals ruled Njonge was denied his right to a public trial because King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh closed the courtroom for a portion of jury selection.

Middaugh shut the court for a morning at the start of jury selection to make room for a 65-member jury pool, according to the appeals court ruling. By the noon break, several jurors had been excused, leaving room for visitors. Middaugh then allowed some of Britt’s family members into the courtroom to observe the jury selection.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said Monday his office will appeal the reversal to the Washington State Supreme Court.

“When a trial judge is faced with the practical realities of managing a courtroom that is too crowded during one day of jury selection, the defendant should not automatically get a new trial after he is convicted weeks later,” Satterberg said in statement.

No one – including Njonge – objected to the court closure at the time.

Satterberg said this is the second King County murder conviction reversed in the past month because of an open courtroom issue that “did not harm the defendant’s right to a fair trial in the least bit.”

The ruling by the three-member Division 1 Court of Appeals said Middaugh did not analyze legal grounds for closing the courtroom.

“Generally, if the record indicates a violation of a defendant’s public trial right, our courts presume prejudice, reverse the conviction, and remand for a new trial,” Judge Marlin Appelwick wrote.

Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the prosecutor’s office, said he expects Njonge will remain in custody. He is in prison at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

Njonge was found guilty of second-degree murder after six days of testimony. He was accused of strangling Britt by ligature in the parking lot of Garden Terrace nursing home and putting her in the trunk of her Mercedes-Benz.

Britt’s body was found by her family on March 19, 2008. She is believed to have left the nursing home around 6 p.m. the previous day after visiting her husband, Frank.

The motive in the killing wasn’t entirely clear in the trial. Prosecutors said Njonge may have attacked Britt because of complaints she made about her husband’s care or because Njonge was worried about being caught for taking Frank Britt’s Costco card.

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