A man who avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to the 2001 slaying of a Des Moines police officer may try to rescind his plea, attorneys for Charles Champion said...
A man who avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to the 2001 slaying of a Des Moines police officer may try to rescind his plea, attorneys for Charles Champion said in court yesterday.
King County Superior Court Judge Anthony Wartnik denied a defense request to postpone Champion’s sentencing hearing, set for Jan. 5, and allowed Champion to consult with an independent lawyer on the wisdom of changing his plea.
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Champion, who had faced a possible death sentence on an aggravated first-degree murder charge, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree murder for shooting Officer Steven J. Underwood in 2001. The negotiated plea took the death penalty off the table.
During a news conference after the plea deal, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said that his office agreed to a standard-range sentence in lieu of a life term in an effort to reach a deal and resolve the case.
But Champion, who hemmed and hawed before the judge when entering his guilty plea in November, apparently has become anxious over the likely 34-year prison sentence he faces, his attorneys said.
“I’m not surprised he would have anxiety and fear over his future,” said Champion’s lead attorney, Jackie Walsh.
Members of Underwood’s family said yesterday they were appalled at the latest development.
“I don’t have any words for it. It’s just crazy now,” said Steven Underwood’s father, Dick Underwood. “The family is outraged. There is no justification for it as far as we’re concerned.”
For much of yesterday’s 45-minute hearing in Wartnik’s courtroom, King County Deputy Prosecutor Nelson Lee and Walsh snapped at each other over evidence and the names of witnesses Walsh planned to have testify at the sentencing.
Wartnik refused to order Walsh to hand over the list because, he said, if Champion is allowed to change his plea the information could be used against him during a trial. Wartnik, however, said that Walsh will likely be asked to make the list available to prosecutors at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Underwood was fatally shot March 7, 2001, when he pulled his patrol car over to talk to four men on Pacific Avenue South. Witnesses told police that Champion, then 18, pulled the trigger. King County prosecutors elected to seek the death penalty against him.
But in the years of legal delays and postponements, two things happened that critically affected the case. Witnesses who were essential to the state’s case became uncooperative, and prosecutors accepted a plea deal that spared the life of Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway in exchange for his guilty plea for killing 48 women.
The Ridgway plea, some legal experts say, changed the legal landscape in Washington and made it difficult for prosecutors to justify a death penalty for anyone convicted of fewer murders. But Maleng has said the Ridgway plea deal did not have an effect on the Champion case.