Court of Appeals sends murder case back to Whatcom County

A former Bellingham man who had been sentenced to 45 years in prison for the murder of his wife has had his conviction reversed by the Court of Appeals because of jury selection errors at his trial.

Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran said the prosecutor's office is asking the appeals court to reconsider its decision in the case of Bruce Hummel, who had been convicted of killing his wife, Alice, in 1990.

The reversal doesn't acquit Hummel. The appeals court sent the case back to Whatcom County for retrial.

Hummel was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Whatcom County jury in September 2009. Police began investigating Alice's death after her oldest daughter filed a missing person report in 2001. Alice disappeared suddenly in October 1990, and Bruce told the couple's children that she had moved to California for a job.

The disappearance happened days after the couple's daughter told Alice that Bruce had been molesting her for years. Alice's purse, credit cards and medication were still at home after Bruce said she had left. Hummel continued to cash his wife's disability checks after her disappearance.

Though no body was ever found, the jury convicted Hummel for his wife's murder. He is serving his sentence in Walla Walla's Washington State Penitentiary and will remain in custody should his case have to be retried.

"Cases where you have no body are very difficult cases," McEachran said. "We spent 10 years working on this case, and then to have this occur, it's very frustrating and dumbfounding to us that this would happen."

If retrial is necessary, McEachran said he's confident in the evidence, which held up in appeal.

What didn't hold up was the way jury selection took place.

Nancy Collins of the Washington Appellate Project represented Hummel in appeal, arguing that Hummel's right to a public trial had been violated, and the Court of Appeals agreed. Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder allowed a number of jurors to be questioned in chambers because the case dealt with the issue of child molestation, and the appeals court said that was done without first weighing important factors established in case law.

"The court did not engage in any meaningful review or balancing of the defendant's right to an impartial jury versus public trial rights," the opinion states.

McEachran argued that private questioning of jurors is a gray area in state law that needs to be made clear. Collins disagreed and said that these type of violations and reversals are more common to Whatcom County than other areas.

Several other Whatcom County cases have been sent back for retrial over the same jury questioning issue.

The prosecutor's office has 20 days to file a motion to reconsider with the court, and then the defense will have a chance to respond. McEachran said they probably won't hear back about the results for at least 30 days. If their motion is granted, then the office will ask the court to affirm Hummel's conviction. If not, they'll petition the Supreme Court to review the case. If that fails, Hummel will be retried in Whatcom County.

"We'd bring him right back and try him. I'd start tomorrow," McEachran said. "We feel very strongly about this case."