A man charged with murder for stabbing another man in the throat is guilty of first-degree manslaughter, a jury decided Wednesday, June 3.
William Ralph Smith, 45, stabbed 25-year-old Jeremy McClellan around 6:30 a.m. March 22.
McClellan, of Skagit County, died in a pool of his own blood minutes later in the doorway of a trailer at 319 Pacific Highway in south Whatcom County.
Smith was charged with second-degree murder while armed with a deadly weapon. The trial began 2 1/2 weeks ago, and on Wednesday the jury — consisting of 10 women and two men — deliberated for less than four hours before reaching a verdict of first-degree manslaughter while armed with a deadly weapon.
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“I kind of see it as a compromise,” said Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey. “We’re disappointed, but we’re going to be OK.”
The defense argued throughout the trial that Smith was acting out of self defense.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Starck Follis began his closing arguments by displaying a small piece of paper on the courtroom TV screens with only 10 words: “The state must disprove self defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He argued that McClellan had been the aggressor that night by approaching with an ax and putting Smith in a position where he needed to defend himself outside his own home.
Smith told sheriff’s deputies shortly after the incident that McClellan had swung an ax at him, then fell down on a broken beer bottle that punctured his neck. The defense played a 911 call from Smith’s girlfriend, Chena Fisher, in which she tells the dispatcher that she saw McClellan with an ax.
However, just two days after the incident Fisher told a detective that she did not, in fact, see McClellan with an ax. She also said then that she saw Smith break the beer bottle afterward.
“I was in shock and I was in disbelief that the person I’ve been with since September, that the person I’m closest to in my life, just took another life,” she said in the recorded statement.
In her court testimony, she went back to her original story that McClellan had an ax. She said she only told the detective otherwise because she felt pressured to do so.
Follis pointed out other details from Smith’s statement the day of his arrest, such as Smith describing McClellan taking off his watch as he approached Smith’s trailer and putting some of his belongings in his truck — signs that McClellan was looking for a fight before driving away.
“Ralph was defending himself in a place where he was entitled to be, and he had no duty to retreat,” Follis said. “He didn’t take the fight to Jeremy; Jeremy brought the fight to him.”
Several witnesses who had been with Smith and McClellan the night before gave testimony during trial. Many had been drinking alcohol and using meth, and most were asleep during the fatal altercation.
Deputy Prosecutor Jeffrey Sawyer, in his closing argument, leaned on physical evidence taken from the scene that he said corroborates the story of Ron White, who owned the property where Smith lived.
White claims he saw one shadowy figure at the top of his driveway strike another in the throat that morning. He then saw McClellan run into some bushes nearby; Smith followed and continue to stab him. McClellan then ran into White’s trailer as others woke up and frantically tried to help, but he died in the trailer doorway.
The defense attempted to discredit White’s testimony. Follis argued that there is no evidence to support that White saw Smith chase him down the driveway with a knife. He cited testimony from McClellan’s half sister who said White was not even looking out the window at the time. He also brought up a dispute in which White had been trying to evict Smith from the property.
“If you believe Ronny White’s testimony that Ralph, without provocation, stabbed Jeremy in the throat and then chased after him, as Mr. Sawyer has submitted, and stabbed him repeatedly in the bushes, and then pursued him in Ronny White’s trailer, then I’m wasting my time,” Follis told jurors. “I’m not going to stand here and argue that that’s self defense.”
Sawyer cited Whatcom County Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel’s testimony that McClellan sustained 10 stab wounds, mostly to his back, arm and neck. The fatal wound, Goldfogel has said, was to McClellan’s neck. A knife was found in Smith’s trailer with McClellan’s blood on it consistent with nine out of the 10 wounds, though it was unclear what caused the neck wound.
Sawyer showed jurors pictures of a blood trail starting where White said he saw the first strike. That trail continued into the bushes down the driveway into White’s trailer.
The jury did not think that was enough to prove intent to kill, so they went with the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter.
“I think the intent to kill was pretty clear with as many stabs as (McClellan) took and the type of stabs the defendant made to the throat,” Richey said. “I think that we had some pretty good evidence of the intent to kill.”
A sentencing date for Smith has not yet been scheduled. He remains in Whatcom County Jail.