Crime

Bellingham murderer gets almost two-thirds off his prison sentence due to error in jury selection

A Bellingham man re-sentenced this week for murder must spend 13 1/3 years in prison, about a third of his original sentence, due in large part to a judicial error during jury selection.

Eric Dwayne Ventress’ brother, Leroy, got into a fight on a Monday morning in October 2005, at a drug house on St. Paul Street near Roosevelt Park in Bellingham. His cellphone and other property were stolen from him, according to charging papers.

Leroy returned to the house that afternoon, with his brother, in a maroon 1991 Thunderbird. This time they brought black semi-automatic handguns. On an upper landing Eric Ventress, then 30 years old, held two guns and kept a lookout while Leroy kicked the door open, with enough force to break the deadbolt.

Marco Deon Bland, 35, came running up the stairs with either a stick or a curtain rod, according to the charges. Eric Ventress shot him in the neck. Bland died at St. Joseph hospital. The Ventress brothers drove off. At the crime scene, police found live .380-caliber rounds, a spent .22-caliber casing and, along a pathway to the apartment, smears and drops of blood.

One resident knew Ventress by his nickname, Money. Police went to Ventress’ travel trailer off Lattimore Road, near Ferndale, and found spent .380-caliber casings that matched the ammo on St. Paul.

By then Ventress was fleeing the state on an eastbound Greyhound bus. The FBI caught up to him in Fort Collins, Colo. A local detective interviewed him. He told police he’d heard Bland shout, “Get my gun!” so he shot him once in the neck.

Leroy told police the firearms — a .380-caliber Smith & Wesson, a Phoenix Arms handgun and a .22-caliber Derringer pistol — were stolen in a burglary on Woburn Street and stashed in the woods. At trial Leroy testified against his brother in a deal to get reduced charges. Leroy Joseph “L.J.” Ventress Jr., who had no felony history, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and first-degree burglary in October 2006. A Whatcom County judge sentenced him to a decade behind bars.

Within a month, a jury found Eric Ventress guilty of murder in the first degree and burglary in the first degree while armed with a deadly weapon. Judge Steven Mura sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

Then in March 2013, the state Court of Appeals nixed those convictions because Ventress’ right to a public trial was violated during jury selection, when some jurors spoke with a judge in private about sensitive issues that might prejudice them. There are standards, under what’s called the Bone-Club analysis, for closing a courtroom in Washington state during voir dire, but Ventress’ case did not meet those standards. Seven jurors were questioned in private if they’d ever been victims of a crime, and if they’d heard anything about the case.

Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey estimated 15 to 20 recent cases have been overturned and returned to Whatcom County Superior Court due to problems related to the Bone-Club analysis. All of them are serious crimes, like murder and rape.

“Some of them come back so long after the trial, so we are just struggling,” Richey said.

Almost a full decade has passed since Ventress and his brother drove to the St. Paul apartment, plenty of time for witnesses’ memories to fade. (Transcripts can be used, Richey said.)

Defense attorney Douglas Hyldahl informed the prosecution within the past month or so that there were more witnesses who hadn’t testified at the first trial, stating Ventress had stayed at the St. Paul apartment and even paid rent, which could bolster his argument for self-defense.

Also, Ventress contended in his appeal that 30 to 40 people visited the St. Paul drug house each day, making it difficult to say who could bar people from entering the home at all. “Even so,” the appeals court noted, “Leroy knocked on the door when he first visited, and there is no evidence that it was typical for visitors to enter by kicking the door while armed with guns.”

Ultimately Eric Ventress, 39, pleaded guilty Thursday, March 12, to a reduced charge of murder in the second degree. The burglary charge was dropped. Judge Charles Snyder approved a plea deal sentencing Ventress to 13 years and four months in prison. He’s expected to get about a 10th of his time off for good behavior, so he could be a free man by October 2017.

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