In a 5-4 vote, the state Supreme Court affirmed Conner Schierman’s convictions on four counts of aggravated first-degree murder. The justices were split 6-3 in upholding Schierman’s death sentence, citing errors made during his 2010 trial.
The state Supreme Court issued a split decision Thursday that ultimately upholds the convictions and death sentence of a Kirkland man who killed a young mother, her sister and two children in 2006, then burned their house down to cover up the crime.
Debate centered on whether Conner Schierman’s rights to a public trial were violated and raised other questions about how fairly the death penalty is applied in Washington state.
In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court affirmed Schierman’s convictions on four counts of aggravated first-degree murder for the stabbing deaths of Olga Milkin; her sister, Lyubov Botvina; and Milkin’s sons, Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3. The justices were split 6-3 in upholding Schierman’s death sentence, citing errors made during his 2010 trial.
Though the 254-page decision referenced numerous challenges filed by Schierman’s attorneys, much of the justices’ disagreement centered on the claim that the 36-year-old’s right to a fair and public trial were violated during jury selection.
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Schierman also argued he wasn’t allowed to present some mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his trial, but the justices rejected those claims.
Further court challenges to Schierman’s convictions are expected in state and federal courts, a lengthy process that is expected to continue for at least another 10 years, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“It’s important to remember that Leonid Milkin is a man who lost everything while he was serving the country in the military,” Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of Olga Milkin’s husband, who was deployed in Iraq, when his wife, sons and sister-in-law were killed. “He is supportive of the death penalty in this matter and we continue to pursue it, as it continues to be the law of the state.”
Schierman is the last person to be sentenced to death in King County. In two later death-penalty cases decided in 2015, one jury was split and the second voted unanimously not to impose capital punishment.
Although Satterberg sought the death penalty against Schierman during his trial, he recently called for the repeal of the death penalty in Washington, citing the cost and lengthy process. A bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Senate but never made it to a House vote.
In Thursday’s ruling, three justices found that the death penalty is disproportionately applied in the state.
Kirkland firefighters responded to a fire at the Milkins’ home early on July 17, 2006, and found the bodies of the four victims — all had been stabbed through the throat. Both women were nude or mostly nude, and the state presented circumstantial evidence at trial that the murders and arson were committed to cover up sexual assault.
Schierman, who had a variety of cuts and scratches to his face and neck, was seen on video-surveillance footage buying gas from a nearby gas station right before the fire broke out. He later told police he woke up in the Milkin house covered in blood, discovered the bodies, then showered and changed his clothes before deciding to burn the house down. He claimed he was in an alcoholic blackout and couldn’t remember how he got there.
Much of the debate in Thursday’s ruling centered on the degree of harm caused by mistakes made during trial and whether such errors should lead to automatic reversals of convictions.
According to Thursday’s ruling, Schierman wasn’t present when the trial judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys went into the judge’s chambers to discuss challenges to six potential jurors during jury selection. Further, the trial judge did not first conduct a legal analysis to determine whether there was a compelling reason to hold the discussion outside of open court.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who wrote the lead opinion, noted the 10-minute meeting in chambers was written into the court record and publicly announced immediately afterward, and occurred without testimony or objection — and therefore couldn’t have meaningfully undermined public confidence in the justice system.
“Indeed, it is more realistic to say that reversing four convictions for aggravated murder resulting from a months-long trial on the basis of a 10-minute in-chambers discussion — which the parties apparently agreed to and which resulted in no testimony, no evidence, and no secrets — would be more likely to diminish public confidence in the judiciary,” McCloud wrote.
She concluded the errors that occurred during jury selection did not warrant a reversal of Schierman’s conviction.
Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst and Justice Barbara Madsen agreed with McCloud’s opinion. Madsen wrote a separate opinion saying the death sentence was “disproportionate” compared to similar cases. She said state law requires the high court to review the sentence.
In a partial dissent, Justice Mary Yu agreed the judge erred and unjustified courtroom closures are inadvisable, “but that does not mean they are always structural error requiring automatic reversal.” Yu, Steven Gonzalez and Charles Wiggins agreed that the conviction and sentence should be affirmed, but disagreed that the sentence was “disproportionate.”
Yu wrote: “A majority of this court agrees justice demands we affirm Schierman’s convictions, but a differently comprised majority of this court unanimously agrees that our precedent precludes us from doing so. In this direct conflict between justice and precedent, justice must prevail.”
Justice Debra Stephens disagreed, saying the court’s precedent should hold. She noted the state Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the minimizing of errors that rise to the level of a constitutional violation during a public trial.
“I fail to see the justice in changing our law to avoid giving relief for a constitutional violation to a man whose conviction the majority believes must be affirmed,” she wrote. “Once we start down this path, it will become quite easy to dismiss as trivial … any number of constitutional errors so long as we convince ourselves that the trial, on the whole, was fair, or more generally that ‘justice demands we affirm.’ ”
Information in this article, originally published April 12, 2018, was corrected April 13, 2018. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a bill to repeal the death penalty failed to make it out of committee. The bill passed the Senate but was not voted on by the House.