Bellingham man’s conviction in the 1990 murder of his wife overturned, again

Deputy Public Defender Angela Anderson talks to defendant Bruce Hummel during opening arguments in his murder retrial in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham, Monday, May 13, 2014.
Deputy Public Defender Angela Anderson talks to defendant Bruce Hummel during opening arguments in his murder retrial in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham, Monday, May 13, 2014.

A Bellingham man’s murder conviction has been overturned by the state Court of Appeals for a second time on the grounds that the evidence didn’t prove the killing was premeditated.

This time the case can’t go to trial again, the appeals court ruled Monday, Oct. 17.

Two juries in Whatcom County have found Bruce Allen Hummel guilty of killing his wife, Alice Hummel, when the pair of retired Alaska teachers and their two daughters lived on Alabama Hill in Bellingham in the early 1990s.

One of the girls and Alice made plans to go to a ballet performance, scheduled for Oct. 21, 1990, to celebrate the girl’s 14th birthday, the girl recalled on the witness stand. A few days beforehand, the daughter had disclosed to her mother that Bruce Hummel had been sexually abusing her. Alice told the girl she would “take care of it.” The girl saw her mother for the last time before school on the morning of Oct. 18.

Once she returned home, her father said that Alice was “going off to California for a job interview,” according to court testimony. Alice never made it to the ballet. She hasn’t been seen since.

Over the years the girls continued to receive letters: a Christmas card signed with Alice’s name, though the check had been signed by Bruce; an anniversary card, signed by Alice; a birthday package, with a return address to Fort Worth, Texas, stamped “not a valid address.” Bruce Hummel told the girls Alice had earned a promotion and moved to Texas. Meanwhile he continued to sexually abuse his youngest daughter, until she ran away.

The girls reported their mother missing in 2001, after revealing to each other they were both sexually abused by their father. They recalled the strange circumstances of their mom’s disappearance. Bellingham police detectives found only traces of their mother’s existence: a current driver’s license from Alaska, monthly disability deposits from a teachers’ retirement system in Alaska, and withdrawals from a bank account in Alaska.

Throughout the investigation Bruce Hummel has maintained his innocence, to a degree. Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he had collected under Alice’s name, he admitted she had been dead for years.

She committed suicide, he said, by cutting her wrists. She left a note, he said, begging him to hide the suicide from the kids. So he took her body onto a raft on Bellingham Bay, he said, where stormy weather overcame him and the body sank into the bay. Nautical records showed the wind speed never topped 6 mph on that particular night, and police found no trace of bloodstains – albeit many years later – in crevices of the bathroom floor, where Bruce claimed his wife bled to death.

Her body was never found.

Hummel was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud in federal court, for the theft of the disability checks, then charged with murder in the first degree in Whatcom County.

At the first trial in August 2009, a jail cellmate testified that Hummel confided that he had “helped Alice get to a better place” by mixing ground up pills with apple cider and giving it to her to drink.

Jurors convicted Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He appealed as he started serving a sentence of 45 years in prison. The Washington State Court of Appeals found, in 2012, that that there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, but that Hummel’s rights were violated during voir dire, when potential jurors were questioned in private about sensitive issues in their personal lives. (Many other similar, serious cases have been overturned in Washington for not undertaking what is called the Bone-Club analysis, essentially a checklist to avoid violating a defendant’s right to a public trial).

So the case went to another trial, and the girls, now grown up, were called in to testify again. This time the state did not bring the “jailhouse snitch” witness to trial, because his testimony did not seem to add much, and the first jury did not put much stock in his testimony, said Dave McEachran, the prosecutor. McEachran does not believe that leaving that witness out of the second trial had any adverse effect on the case.

Hummel was convicted of first-degree murder, again, in May 2014. This time he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a shorter term because the Court of Appeals found his federal crimes should not count toward his criminal history because there was no comparable state law to federal wire fraud in 1990.

Regardless, it was effectively a life sentence. By then Hummel was 72 years old. He appealed with assistance from the Washington Appellate Project. The appeals court found that the evidence did not prove premeditation, in the opinion handed down Monday, Oct. 17.

“The evidence that Hummel disposed of her body, concealed her death, and fraudulently obtained her disability checks after she died is evidence of guilt,” the appellate judges wrote, “but does not prove premeditation.”

At trial McEachran argued that Hummel must have lured his wife out of the house, because a 200-pound, 5-foot-10 man, like Hummel, could not have lifted his wife’s 200- to 250-pound body into his van. This would suggest that Hummel must have planned her death for at least a moment, all that is needed to count as premeditation.

The appeals court ruling notes that Hummel could have found a way, for example, by wrapping her body in plastic and dragging her to the van, as Hummel claimed he had done to cover up the suicide.

“We’re very, very upset about the decision,” McEachran said. “There’s no question of this guy’s guilt when you look at the facts of the case.”

During the second trial Angela Anderson, the public defender, offered the jury a scenario that would, in theory, suggest the murder wasn’t premeditated: Mom waits several days to confront Hummel about the molestation, then confronts him on the day she disappears.

“Let’s assume this,” Anderson argued, “in a rage (Hummel) kills her right then and there, and when the kids come home, mom is gone. If that is the way it happened, that’s murder in the second degree, because there’s no premeditation.”

Murder in the second degree, however, had been taken off the table in an agreement before the second trial – a move that ended up working out for the defense, Anderson said Tuesday.

McEachran said he did not ask the jury to consider convicting him of what is known as a “lesser included offense,” i.e., murder in the second degree, because the first Court of Appeals ruling agreed there was evidence to prove murder in the first degree. McEachran called it “bizarre” that a second group of judges, on the same court, disagreed and found there wasn’t enough evidence to prove premeditation.

So as a result the Court of Appeals ruled that, because the prosecutor didn’t instruct the jury to consider the lesser crime, the judgment could not simply be reduced to murder in the second degree.

“Reversal for insufficient evidence is ‘equivalent to an acquittal,’ and bars retrial for the same offense,” reads the appellate court’s ruling, in a paragraph citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Burks v. United States.

This has been another heartbreaking turn of events for Alice Hummel’s family, McEachran said.

The prosecutor plans to appeal to the state’s highest court. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, the case will be sent back to Whatcom County, and dismissed with prejudice. That means the defendant would be a free man, and the case couldn’t be taken to trial a third time.

In the meantime, Hummel will await the result of that appeal behind bars at a state prison in Monroe.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb