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Unexpected twist in court leaves lover/murderer’s testimony in doubt

Peggy Sue Thomas, who was allegedly involved in the 2003 murder of Russel Douglas on South Whidbey, appears in court Friday.  - Jessie Stensland / The Record
Peggy Sue Thomas, who was allegedly involved in the 2003 murder of Russel Douglas on South Whidbey, appears in court Friday.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / The Record

During a very unusual hearing Friday, two suspected murderers and former lovers came face to face in court for the first time since their arrests.

Peggy Sue Thomas, a former beauty queen, is facing a murder charge, and now a count of conspiracy to commit murder, for her alleged role in the 2003 shooting death of 32-year-old Russel Douglas on South Whidbey.

James Huden, her alleged accomplice and former boyfriend, was convicted of first-degree murder in a high-profile trial last summer and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He was summoned from prison by Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks to appear at a hearing to determine whether he’ll testify against Thomas at trial.

The Friday afternoon hearing, however, didn’t go the way the prosecutor was expecting.

The case has received widespread media coverage. Nightline, the ABC television news program, is following the case and had a TV camera at the hearing. True-crime author Anne Rule is planning on writing a book about the murder.

Throughout the case, Huden has refused to testify against his former girlfriend. He ignored an offer from the prosecution which would have lessened his sentence in exchange for his testimony against Thomas. He remained silent at the sentencing hearing as the victim’s family members begged him to explain what happened and who else was involved.

Nevertheless, Huden’s own words — which he allegedly spoke to a friend and his wife — may be used against Thomas at trial.

Huden’s friend, Bill Hill, and his wife, Jean Huden, both claim that Huden told them about Thomas’ participation in the murder. Thomas is accused of luring Douglas to a rural area of Wahl Road in Freeland with the promise of a Christmas gift; instead, Huden shot him in the head.Jessie Stensland / The Record | James Huden, who was convicted of killing Russel Douglas, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights during a hearing in Island County Superior Court.

Under a rule of evidence, Hill and Jean Huden could testify to third-hand statement, normally inadmissible as hearsay, if Huden is not available to testify for some reason, which could include his assertion of his Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination.

The prosecutor expected Huden, whose case is under appeal, to claim those rights at the hearing Friday, clearing the way for Jean Huden and Hill to testify.

But in a twist, Huden met with his attorney and Thomas’ attorney in the jail Friday morning and spoke about the case. Huden allegedly said to Thomas’ attorney, Craig Platt of Coupeville, that he had never told anyone that Thomas helped him with the murder. He also made claims against Hill’s character.

“His former love interest is on trial and he has every motive to try to work some mischief in the state’s case,” Banks said to the judge.

During the hearing, Huden took the stand as his former girlfriend and alleged partner in crime stared at him from across the room. He didn’t answer any questions, but repeatedly pleaded the Fifth after his attorney whispered in his ear.

Then Huden’s attorney, Matthew Montoya of Oak Harbor, was called to the stand and cross-examined about what Huden said to Platt during the morning meeting. Montoya testified that Huden said he never told Hill that Thomas was involved in the murder. In addition, Huden claimed he never said anything to his wife about Thomas’ involvement in the murder, Montoya said.

Montoya said Huden invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when asked if he killed Douglas.

Banks grilled Montoya about whether Huden ever stated, point-blank, that Thomas was not involved in the murder. Montoya said he couldn’t recall if Huden said that specifically, but that was the general gist of the meeting.

With the unusual turn of events, it was unclear to the judge or attorneys whether Huden has waived his Fifth Amendment rights by speaking with Platt or whether the witnesses can testify at trial about what Huden allegedly said to them.

In the end, Judge Alan Hancock asked the attorneys to brief him on the issues, which will be resolved prior to the Jan. 29 trial.

Later in the hearing, Hancock ruled — over defense objection — that the prosecutor can amend the charges against Thomas to include conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. She was previously charged with first-degree murder.

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