'Somebody died ... because of a fight they had with you. You're the one who has to live with that.'
A Whatcom County man convicted of stabbing a man to death in March 2015, and successfully appealed his case, was resentenced Tuesday in Whatcom County Superior Court to 10 years in prison, taking eight years off his original sentence.
William Ralph Smith, 47, stabbed Jeremy Derek McClellan 10 times in the throat, back and arms after the two got into a fight in south Whatcom County. McClellan, 25, died minutes later in a doorway of a trailer at 319 Pacific Highway in a pool of his own blood.
The details of the fight between Smith and McClellan still remain unclear.
Before resentencing Smith Tuesday to the highest maximum time allowed, Judge Charles Snyder, who presided over the case and jury trial, said he has thought a lot about the case.
“The total chaos that occurred that night and the amount of drugs that were ingested and the amount of reckless and dangerous behavior that took place is just amazing to me. I think the jury struggled with the fact that people could actually behave that way,” Snyder said. “It’s also pretty clear to me from the testimony of the witnesses we had in the trial … this was probably not an accidental death, and the evidence supports that finding.”
Snyder admonished Smith for the type of lifestyle he had been leading.
“What really happened, the thing that you can’t avoid is that someone died. Somebody died because of an altercation with you – not because they fell, but because of a fight they had with you,” Snyder said. “And so you’re going to be the one who has to live with that. You’re going to be the one who has to acknowledge that and understand that whatever you think was the basis for Mr. McClellan’s death, the cause of his death was not that. The cause of his death was your actions on that night.”
Smith pleaded guilty and was resentenced for second-degree manslaughter, a lesser-included offense. He was originally charged with second-degree murder while armed with a deadly weapon, but a jury found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter in June 2015. He was sentenced a few months later to 18 years in prison.
The Washington State Court of Appeals overturned Smith’s conviction, ruling the jury should have been informed that a defendant can argue self-defense for manslaughter – which was the basis of Smith’s defense.
In March 2015, Smith was living in a trailer on a 9-acre property on Pacific Highway, east of Lake Samish. McClellan, of Skagit County, and a small group of people had been hanging out on the property the night before he died.
Smith said McClellan approached him at his trailer with an ax, looking for a fight, according to court records. The story was supported twice by Smith’s girlfriend, once when she called 911 during the incident and during trial. However, two days after McClellan’s death, she told sheriff’s deputies that she never saw McClellan with an ax and suggested Smith staged the scene by breaking a beer bottle and telling officers McClellan had fallen on it several times, court papers indicated.
Investigators found a trail of blood leading from Smith’s trailer to some nearby bushes. They also found a knife in Smith’s trailer with fresh blood on it. The blood included both Smith’s and McCellan’s DNA and the knife was matched to nine out of the 10 stab wounds, except for McClellan’s fatal neck wound, the records show. Dr. Gary Goldfogel, Whatcom County medical examiner, said that wound could have been caused by either a knife or a shard of glass.
Avoiding a lengthy prison sentence
On Tuesday, Deputy Prosecuting attorney Eric Richey acknowledged proving that Smith didn’t act out of self-defense was difficult. He noted that many of the witnesses who may have saw something were either high on meth, asleep or flip-flopped their statements about that night’s events. But Richey said the state had evidence to believe Smith acted dishonestly and had staged part of the scene involving how McClellan died.
Starck Follis, the director of the public defender’s office and one of Smith’s attorneys, said going back to trial on the matter would not have been ideal, as a jury would have been unpredictable. After serving nearly three years already, the plea was a way for Smith to avoid an even lengthier prison sentence, Follis said.
Follis said Smith never intended to kill McClellan. He also said Smith maintains that he acted in self-defense.
“The facts are undisputed that the victim came to his (Smith’s) house ... and there was an altercation,” Follis said. “Beyond that, the only two that really know what went on at that point outside Mr. Smith’s trailer that night are (McCellan) and (Smith).”
Smith, addressing the court, said he didn’t have it in him to go to trial again. He also apologized to McClellan’s friends and family.
As corrections officers were preparing to take Smith away, Snyder advised Smith this was a strike offense, referencing Washington state’s three-strike rule for repeat felony offenders, and told him to take that into account moving forward with his life.
“Mister, I’m doing art when I get out, not drugs, so I don’t have to worry about that,” Smith said.