Pasco murder suspect reaches deal, facing life in prison

January 6, 2014 

— Joseph W. Hart knew he had two options for his future — and freedom wasn’t one of them.

A repeat felon facing a third strike for killing his Pasco housemate, the 29-year-old accepted that the rest of his days would be spent in a state prison or a psychiatric facility.

Defense attorney Scott Johnson was confident they’d get a “not guilty by reason of insanity” ruling after a trial. But Hart, a paranoid schizophrenic, didn’t want to be locked up forever with other mentally ill criminals.

So hours before Judge Carrie Runge was to start hearing testimony in the Franklin County Superior Court case, Johnson came up with a resolution that would follow his client’s wish, but also preserve the possibility of an appeal.

On Monday, Runge found Hart guilty of second-degree murder and second-degree assault for the March 6, 2012, attack that killed Rodger A. Lincoln.

The verdict was reached after a brief stipulated-facts trial, a proceeding rarely done with violent crimes such as murder.

Unlike a straight guilty plea or an Alford plea in which Hart would’ve had to give up all rights, the special proceeding involved a conviction by the judge after prosecutors and the defense agreed to Hart’s role in the fatal stabbing.

The key is if the Washington Legislature ever changes the state’s “three-strikes” law in a way that could benefit him, Hart could file an appeal in hopes of getting his sentence shortened.

But for now, when Hart returns to court next week for sentencing, Runge won’t have any choice but to find he’s a persistent offender and order a life sentence without the possibility of release from the state Department of Corrections.

“It’s a good outcome on a horrible case,” Johnson told the Herald. “It was important to (Hart that he go to prison), and then important to me, because he doesn’t have a lot of choices and that was something he could have control over.”

Hart’s father was in court on Monday but did not speak.

Johnson had long maintained that his client was sane when he killed Lincoln.

Hart, who reported being anxious and hearing voices, spent some time at Eastern State Hospital over the past 22 months for competency restoration and treatment with anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medication. His mental state has stabilized since starting new medication about a month ago, Johnson said.

Hart shared a home with Lincoln and another roommate in the Sundance Mobile Home Park on North Elm Avenue. The home is one of several owned by Lourdes Health Network and is used as housing for people with mental illnesses.

Neighbors reported seeing Hart and Lincoln struggling in their front yard, and watched Hart strike Lincoln repeatedly, Pasco police said. When officers arrived, Lincoln was dead. Hart had gone back inside the house.

Lincoln, 53, died of several stab wounds from a hunting-type knife to his head and torso, an autopsy showed.

Hart got his first strike in 2004 for a first-degree robbery in Spokane. He hitched a ride with a man, then pulled a butterfly knife and left the victim with a 6-inch gash to his neck and cuts to his face and fingers.

Hart was doing time for the robbery in Walla Walla’s Washington State Penitentiary when he was caught with a weapon while fighting another prisoner. The 2006 assault conviction was his second strike.

Because a state psychologist held firm to his conclusion that Hart was sane when he stabbed his roommate in the recent case, Johnson had to go forward with plans for a trial.

Hart waived his right to a 12-member jury and opted to have Runge decide his fate.

Johnson said he was meeting Sunday with Hart for final trial preparation when they discussed their only options. Hart made it clear that even if Johnson was sure he could get an insanity verdict, Hart wanted to spend his days in a prison cell and not committed to a hospital ward.

Johnson said he appreciated Prosecutor Shawn Sant and Deputy Prosecutor Dave Corkrum working with him to find a resolution “because clearly there were some mental health issues.”

Runge noted that before the Monday hearing, she reviewed the stipulated facts, Washington State Patrol Crime Lab reports, autopsy reports and documents detailing Hart’s medical and mental history.

She asked Hart a series of questions, making sure he understood what rights he was giving up and that he made the decision “voluntarily and freely” after consulting with his lawyer.

Sant told the Herald he was glad the judge took time not to rush the hearing. It “was a strong case,” Sant said, but his office recognized there were mental health concerns and is satisfied with how it wrapped up.

“We put offers out there, and it’s rare to get a (guilty) plea as charged, but there really isn’t any other option on this case,” he said. “I’ll be interested to see how other defendants in a similar situation might consider this option.”

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531;; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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