The last trial in the fatal home-invasion robbery of Edgewood resident James Sanders might turn out to be the most contentious.
The previous three defendants admitted taking part in the robbery but tried to diminish their roles in Sanders’ death.
They all failed, were convicted of first-degree murder and other charges, and are serving prison sentences ranging from 71 to 124 years.
Clabon Berniard, whose trial began Monday in Pierce County Superior Court, admits nothing.
His attorney, Cathleen Gormley, told the jury he wasn’t in the Sanders’ home the night of April 28, 2010, when a group posing as buyers for a ring Sanders had advertised on Craigslist.org invaded his home.
Gormley pointed out to jurors that the three other defendants – Kiyoshi Higashi, Amanda Knight and Joshua Reese – left Pierce County shortly after the murder while her client remained behind.
“They fled as fast and as far as they could,” she said during her opening statement in the trial. “Clabon didn’t flee because Clabon wasn’t guilty.”
In fact, Gormley said, Berniard surrendered when he learned police were looking for him.
Prosecutors see it differently. They’ve charged Berniard with first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, and two counts of second-degree assault and first-degree robbery.
Sanders was shot inside his house after he began fighting with the intruders who tied up and beat his wife and him and pistol-whipped his teenage son. Prosecutors believe Higashi pulled the trigger.
Prosecutors allege Clabon beat Sanders’ wife, Charlene, and terrorized the couple’s two boys.
“When you assist in committing a robbery and someone is murdered, you’re guilty of murder,” deputy prosecutor Mary Robnett said in her opening statement. “Jim Sanders had a nice house and a nice family and a nice life. He was murdered in front of his wife and kids that night.”
Robnett said plenty of evidence points to Berniard as the person who went with Higashi, Knight and Reese to the Sanders home that night.
Cellphone records tie Berniard to the three, and Charlene Sanders intends to testify it was Berniard who held a gun to the back of her head and counted down from three, indicating he’d shoot her if she didn’t tell him where to find the family safe by the time he reached zero.
She did not get a good look at his face but recognized his voice after a Seattle television station replayed a clip of an interview with him regarding a fire some time before the fatal robbery, Robnett said.
She said Berniard’s younger sister also would testify, saying she heard her brother talking about taking part in the robbery and murder.
Gormley told jurors she intends to call an expert on memory to testify that Charlene Sanders and Berniard’s sister were predisposed to believe Berniard was the fourth suspect after hearing law enforcement and media reports about the case.
Their memory of events shows signs of “confirmation bias,” the defense attorney said, meaning they believed only information that confirmed their beliefs and ignored information that did not.