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State court turns down South Whidbey murderer’s appeal

Convicted murderer James Huden arrives in court in 2013, shortly before his conviction by a jury. He lost an appeal in state court this week. - Record file
Convicted murderer James Huden arrives in court in 2013, shortly before his conviction by a jury. He lost an appeal in state court this week.
— image credit: Record file

A judge did not err in giving a South Whidbey High School graduate and convicted murderer more than double the standard-range sentence because his victim was wearing a seatbelt and had “an unsuspecting mindset” when he was shot, the Washington State Appeals Court ruled this week.

James Huden is in his second year of an 80-year sentence for shooting and killing Russel Douglas in a secluded area of South Whidbey Dec. 27, 2003.

A jury found Huden guilty in 2012 of first-degree murder with a firearms enhancement as well as an aggravating factor.

Douglas was “particularly vulnerable,” or more vulnerable than a typical victim of first-degree murder, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks explained. Vulnerability of the victim is one of several “aggravating factors” that allows a judge to sentence a defendant outside the standard sentencing range.

Douglas was particularly vulnerable, Banks argued, because he was wearing a seatbelt inside his car, was lured to and ambushed in a remote location, and had no reason to suspect he was going to be shot through his car window at point-blank range.

“Russel Douglas could not duck, run, or deflect Huden’s aim,” Banks wrote in his brief to the appellate court. “Even fish in a barrel can swim and potentially avoid a fatal encounter with a bullet. Russel Douglas was more vulnerable than that.”

In his sentencing memorandum, Banks wrote that Huden and his mistress, Peggy Sue Thomas, carefully planned the murder so that Douglas could not resist; he speculated that they wouldn’t have gone through with the killing if they hadn’t been able to carefully control the situation.

Thomas was originally charged with murder for allegedly helping Huden lure Douglas to the out-of-the-way area, but pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance under a plea bargain. She was sentenced to four years in prison.

Banks recommended an 80-year sentence for Huden, which was just over 48 years beyond the top of the standard sentencing range Huden would have faced without the aggravating factor. Judge Vickie Churchill agreed and handed out the exceptional penalty.

Huden appealed his sentence, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of particular vulnerability. He also appealed his conviction on several grounds, including an allegation that Banks committed misconduct.

Huden’s attorneys argued that Douglas was not particularly vulnerable to a sudden gunshot wound to the head. They argued that, “the suddenness of such an attack would prevent any victim from resisting.”

In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals threw out Huden’s arguments, except to find that Banks acted inappropriately in calling the key witness a “hero” during closing arguments. Yet while Banks “crossed into the realm of personal opinion,” the defense didn’t object, the misconduct wasn’t flagrant and he backed up the assertion with evidence, the court ruled.

Huden has 20 days to file a motion for reconsideration with the appeals court and 30 days to file a petition for review with the state Supreme Court.

 

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