Prosecutor scrambling to get statement from key witness in Richland murder trial

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldDecember 20, 2013 

A Seattle doctor who did the autopsy on a 32-year-old woman stabbed to death in September is leaving the country for seven months, forcing the Benton County prosecutor to seek a videotaped interview to played at the trial.

Prosecutor Andy Miller only learned a week ago that Dr. Carl Wigren is leaving Jan. 25 for a fellowship in New Zealand. He reportedly won't be available to testify until after Aug. 15.

Wigren is a forensic pathologist who was brought in for the autopsy on Rebeca Vandeventer after she was stabbed 30 times inside her Richland apartment.

Wigren is expected to be a key witness in the trial of Lawrence A. Miller, Vandeventer's 35-year-old ex-boyfriend who is charged with her Sept. 11 death.

Miller's trial had been set for Jan. 6, but on Friday it was moved to March 10. The defense had hoped for a delay until June, but the judge agreed with the prosecutor that they should schedule an earlier date and push it back later if needed.

Along with Vandeventer's autopsy, Wigren has handled the more than half-dozen homicides in Benton County this year, according to Coroner John Hansens.

It is not clear what the doctor's absence will mean for the other cases, all scheduled for trials in the first half of the year.

"This simply is not acceptable," Andy Miller said in his email response to Wigren's office on Dec. 13. "We have a number of trials where Dr. Wigren did the autopsy and the speedy trial rule means that most of the trials will be held within that time period. We will need Dr. Wigren's in-live testimony."

Wigren's office administrator sent Miller an email earlier that day saying the doctor is going to "a training opportunity with the Auckland District Health Board's Medical Examiner's office in New Zealand."

The email said Wigren "will be able to assist with consulting via email and telephone."

The email exchange was included in Miller's motion to depose Wigren before he leaves the country.

The court can order a deposition if a witness may be unable to attend a trial. The recorded interview also would include questions from the defense -- as if the witness was on the stand before a jury. The defendant is present for it.

However, Lawrence Miller's attorneys objected to the request Friday, noting that the second-degree murder case is only 31/2 months old and they have yet to receive all of the reports and evidence or complete their own investigation.

"As you're aware, this is an extremely complex case," Alexandria Sheridan told Judge Vic VanderSchoor.

Sheridan said the defense hasn't received the autopsy report and, even if it was handed to them Friday, it wouldn't give them enough time to properly prepare a cross-examination of Wigren before he leaves in a month.

Sheridan added that she watched the autopsy, but said she doesn't have a scientific background and she and co-counsel Scott Johnson would need to consult first with a defense pathologist.

"We think there are other options open to the state to secure Dr. Wigren's testimony at trial," she said.

Andy Miller said he was not aware of options for the state other than taking a deposition.

The possibility of flying Wigren back for the trial was never discussed. That likely would be a hefty burden on the county, with a round-trip plane ticket topping $1,600 in addition to other travel costs.

VanderSchoor questioned if Wigren could be deposed while he's abroad, which would give Sheridan and Johnson more time to meet with their own expert.

Miller said the defendant would have to waive his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witness, because the two would not be in the same room for the questioning.

He said the defense has pictures of the autopsy and that police reports summarize the autopsy, so Sheridan and Johnson should be ready to interview Wigren on Jan. 21.

VanderSchoor asked both sides if it's realistic that Lawrence Miller could face a jury before next August because many murder cases can take one to 11/2 years to reach trial.

Andy Miller said he had a recent murder case with Sheridan and Johnson that went to trial in six months. But Sheridan said the issues in that trial were a lot different, and added that she "can't in good faith say that a deposition at this point would serve any purpose."

The judge told the prosecutor to get Wigren's report by next week and pass it on to the defense. He tentatively ordered a deposition in a month, but acknowledged that more documents or information may be needed from the doctor at a later time.

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