Whatcom County manslaughter conviction overturned due to court’s error

William Ralph Smith at his first appearance in court in March 2015.
William Ralph Smith at his first appearance in court in March 2015.

A Whatcom County man’s conviction for stabbing a man to death was overturned this week, when the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled the jury should have been informed that a defendant can argue self-defense for manslaughter.

Two years ago a jury found William Ralph Smith, 47, guilty of first-degree manslaughter for stabbing Jeremy Derek McClellan in the throat and back outside a mobile home on a 9-acre property east of Lake Samish.

McClellan, a friend of Smith’s landlord, played foosball with Smith in the hours before his death at 319 Pacific Highway. That night McClellan had consumed meth, alcohol and marijuana. Later, as dawn approached on March 22, 2015, he pounded on the door of Smith’s trailer, asking him to come out, or to give him a cigarette, but Smith twice told him he was spending time with his girlfriend.

A half-hour later, around 6:30 a.m., McClellan knocked a third time. Smith went outside. His girlfriend, Chena Fisher, followed with her dog. Smith told Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies that McClellan attacked him. He said McClellan punched him in the head and swung an ax at him twice but missed. Smith said they wrestled, and McClellan went to the ground where his neck fell on a broken beer bottle. Smith didn’t recall using the bottle as a weapon. He didn’t deny using it either, according to prosecutors.

“Smith was adamant, however, that if he used it, he only used it toward Jeremy’s mid-section and denied using anything to cut Jeremy or cause the neck wound,” according to prosecutors’ appellate brief. McClellan left a trail of blood as he escaped to the landlord’s trailer. He bled to death in the doorway. He was 25.

Smith couldn’t explain several stab wounds in McClellan’s back, according to prosecutors. An autopsy revealed nine to 10 wounds in all, from what appeared to be a knife, not glass. Detectives found a bloody knife with a 3 ½-inch blade in Smith’s home. Confronted with it, Smith claimed blood “might have dripped onto the knife when he went inside to wash his hands in the sink,” according to prosecutors. The knife tested positive for DNA from both men.

That week Fisher gave conflicting statements about what she saw. Two months later on the witness stand, she testified McClellan “flinched” in an aggressive way while holding the ax. Other potential witnesses were high or asleep at the time.

Smith was charged with second-degree murder.

The case

At trial defense attorneys argued Smith acted in self-defense. Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder gave the jury an option to find Smith guilty of manslaughter, a lesser-included offense, if the evidence did not prove murder. Under state law second-degree murder is when a defendant kills someone with intent, but without forethought. First-degree manslaughter is when a defendant’s reckless actions lead to a death.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder. Evan Abell

At the tail-end of a three-week trial, prosecutors asked the judge to cross out a line defining manslaughter in the jury instructions, where it said the state must prove “that the homicide was not justifiable.”

Logically, it made sense, said the prosecutor in charge of the case, Eric Richey: Can a person argue his actions were both self-defense and a mistake?

The prosecutor’s office interpreted the law – “and the law’s not really clear in this area,” Richey said – to mean that Smith couldn’t argue the homicide was justified, if it’s manslaughter.

The judge removed the instruction, over concerns from public defenders Starck Follis and Angela Anderson. Looking back, Anderson said this week, the trial court erred on the side of protecting the state’s case, when it should have erred on the side of protecting the defendant’s rights, to avoid being overturned on appeal. In the section defining “murder” for the jury, a line about justifiable homicide remained.

Smith did not take the witness stand.

Jurors deliberated for 4 hours before finding Smith guilty of manslaughter. Defense attorneys asked for a new trial. Snyder noted, in hindsight, the line about justifiable homicide should have remained in both instructions. But he declined to grant a new trial right then.

“I’m not absolutely certain about that,” Snyder said, according to court records, “but I’m certain enough that I think that’s the decision I will make at this time.”

At his sentencing, Smith maintained he was standing his ground.

“He was in the wrong place, I was in the wrong place, we were high on drugs,” Smith told McClellan’s mother, through tears, in court. “It’s tragic.”

Smith had a long record of drug-related crimes. A Department of Corrections investigator noted he was a skinhead gang member, and that his gang allowed him to retire, in Smith’s words, because of “years and years of quality service.”

Snyder sentenced Smith to 18 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals overturned the manslaughter conviction Monday, on the grounds that the Whatcom County court’s instructions misled the jury and misstated the law. A panel of three appellate judges noted that Smith could argue self-defense at trial, even if he told police early on that the death was an accident.

“Smith is entitled to the benefit of all the evidence, including facts inconsistent with his own testimony,” the Court of Appeals opinion says.

Smith can be tried again on the manslaughter charge, but not for murder. He remains incarcerated as he awaits another trial.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb