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Huden trial enters jury deliberations

James Huden listens to his defense attorney, Matt Montoya, during the seventh day of his trial in Island County Superior Court. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
James Huden listens to his defense attorney, Matt Montoya, during the seventh day of his trial in Island County Superior Court.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

COUPEVILLE — Now comes the wait. Through eight days of jury selection, arguments, cross examinations, rebuttals and closing statements, the fate of James Huden is in the hands of 12 Island County citizens.

Closing arguments in the trial of Huden, who Island County prosecutor Greg Banks alleges killed Russel Douglas in December 2003, finished Friday afternoon. The jury was read its instructions and sent to the jury room in Island County Superior Court by 1 p.m. Friday.

Banks recalled his opening argument in which he declared the murder to be an assassination, and described the events.

“The evidence is in, and most assuredly, the evidence has shown what I said to be true,” Banks told the jury. “Mr. Huden did assassinate Russel Douglas the day after Christmas (2003) in a remote location on Whidbey Island.”

“This case is also about heroes. I submit to you that Bill Hill is a hero ... he had to choose between loyalty to his best and closest friend and what his conscience told him.”

Banks also called Keith Ogden, a former friend of Huden’s who turned in the alleged murder weapon (a Bersa 380 semiautomatic handgun), a hero. Ogden testified to teaching Huden how to operate and clean the pistol, as well as silence it with a pillow or plastic soda bottle. Neither Ogden nor Hill were familiar with Whidbey Island or the crime, and were motivated to testify against Huden because of their consciences. 

“There was something up here that he had to make right,” Banks said of Hill.

Matt Montoya, Huden’s defense attorney, asked the jurors to think critically about the testimonies and evidence. He questioned a lack of evidence regarding cell phone records placed by Huden or the alleged accomplice, Peggy Thomas, around the time of the murder. Montoya also pondered the timing and location, as well as the assertion that Huden was abused as a child which was also rebuffed by Montoya.

“No one — no one — can put Mr. Huden on Whidbey Island on Dec. 26, 2003,” Montoya said.

“You haven’t heard any evidence that supports he was abused.”

Huden’s whereabouts rested upon the testimony of Ron Young, Huden’s lifelong friend. Young lives in Tukwila and testified that he saw Huden and Thomas around noon or 1 p.m. Dec. 26, 2003. Banks in his rebuttal said that Young was recalling events that took place eight years ago and that Young himself said he couldn’t recall the exact days he saw Huden prior to Christmas that year, other than that they had visited, all of which Banks called “a happy coincidence.”

The closing arguments followed a day full of law enforcement and forensics experts for the prosecution on Tuesday and a day of a forensic expert and Young for the defense Thursday. Through a fuzzy recording and garbled speakers, those in the courtroom could see Huden as he sat in an interview room almost eight years ago.

In that taped interview from August 2004, jurors on Tuesday, July 17 watched Huden.

Det. Mark Plumberg and Sgt. Mike Beech, both of the Island County Sheriff’s Office, asked dozens of questions. The interview lasted almost an hour, with Plumberg and Beech repeating questions about where he was during the Christmastime 2003 murder of Russel Douglas, who prosecutors allege was murdered by Huden and an accomplice, Peggy Sue Thomas.

Island County detectives and investigators learned that Huden and Thomas were boyfriend and girlfriend, despite Huden being married to a woman in Punta Gorda, Fla. at the time, and that they each said they arranged to give Douglas a present for his estranged wife, Brenna Douglas.

The main problem with their alibis was they each said they delivered the gift alone. Huden admitted to the officers that he had met Russel Douglas only in passing, which struck Plumberg as odd, given Huden had just told him he took the gift to Douglas.

“Had you ever met Russel? Did he even know about you?” Plumberg asked Huden in the tape. “That seems a little out of sorts to me.”

“She says she went alone, you say you went alone.”

That was the last time law enforcement saw Huden for almost seven years. He fled a couple of weeks later to Veracruz, Mexico on the Gulf of Mexico, where he became known as music teacher Maestro Jim until U.S. Marshals arrested and extradited Huden on June 10, 2011, back to the United States.

As the tape played for the court, Huden mostly looked down at his notepad. When the recording depicted him talking about Thomas and her boyfriend at the time, who Plumberg and Beech explained was better liked by Thomas’ two daughters, Huden lifted his head and turned left to see the screen.

Prosecutor Greg Banks alleged that Huden and Thomas lured Douglas to a secluded driveway on Dec. 26, 2003. He arrived to get a present for his wife, but instead got a bullet between the eyes. Huden knew Whidbey Island well enough — he grew up on the South End and even played football for the Langley High School Falcons with his childhood friend Rick Deposit, who testified earlier in the trial for the prosecution.

Young, also Huden’s lifelong friend, took the stand for the defense, however briefly. Montoya asked Young how they began a 50-year-friendship and if he saw Huden on Dec. 26, 2003. Young testified he saw Huden and Thomas between noon and 1 p.m. that day, which is when Island County law enforcement believes Douglas was shot and killed.

The location and time were the defense’s main argument. Montoya used an expert witness, Jon Nordby, a forensic researcher who studies blood spatter and stains. Nordby has worked for more than 10 years in blood spatter research after a teaching career in philosophy and logic at Pacific Lutheran University.

“If I see a stain, I want to know how many different ways I can produce that stain,” Nordby said.

As part of his work, Nordby’s lab reviewed photographs of the crime scene and Douglas’ autopsy taken by Dr. Robert Bishop, the county corner. And though Nordby initially requested to review the clothing and suspected murder weapon, a Bersa 380 semiautomatic handgun, and the Island County Sheriff’s Office offered it to him both during a visit to the sub-station and by mail, Nordby ultimately declined. One reason he did not need to see the clothing was because “the stains were more visible” in the photographs than they are now, some eight years after the murder.

Nordby testified about seeing unusual patterns in the car. Around the driver’s seat, blood appeared only below the window, with none identified by Nordby on the top of the dashboard or windshield, which he argued would happen from back spatter with a close impact.

Banks questioned Nordby’s academic credentials. Nordby, despite having a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate, does not have any in the science fields. He has a bachelor of arts, a master’s of logic and a philosophy doctorate. Banks also explained that Nordby has not worked as a medical examiner, medical pathologist or physician. In a previous case in Arizona that Nordby testified in, the forensic researcher concluded that the victim was shot outside the vehicle based on blood marks. Nordby wrote a 125-page report for the case, though Banks pointed out that 60-plus pages were devoted to photographs and captions, and a different page included an illustrative reference to a scene from the film “Pulp Fiction,” where John Travolta’s character shoots a man in the head, resulting in massive back spatter from the grisly, albeit fictional, impact.

The trial went into jury deliberations Friday afternoon, after the Record went to press.

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