Joseph W. Hart sentenced to life in prison for murder, assault

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 14, 2014 

— The sister of Rodger A. Lincoln, a Pasco man killed almost two years ago, said his life was stolen from him by a violent criminal who deserves to be in a cage forever.

A teary Linda Lincoln opted not to speak at Tuesday's hearing for Joseph W. Hart, who was sentenced in Franklin County Superior Court by Judge Carrie Runge to life in prison without possibility of release.

Instead, Lincoln had Runge silently read her letter.

She described Rodger Lincoln, 53, as a father and a grandfather, and said the little ones will never get the chance to know her brother as an adult themselves.

"We are all going to miss him dearly," Linda Lincoln wrote. "I pray that three strikes means that (Hart's) freedom is gone forever. You still being alive must be God's pleasure."

"... You now will be lost in time. Good-bye to you, Joseph Hart," she added.

Runge had no option but to give the convicted killer a life sentence because of his criminal history.

Hart, 29, already had two strikes under Washington law when Runge found him guilty last week of second-degree murder and second-degree assault. Both of those crimes qualified as another strike.

"I don't have anything to say," Hart told the judge during the 13-minute hearing.

Defense attorney Scott Johnson had long maintained that his client was insane during the March 6, 2012, attack on Lincoln.

A psychologist at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake held firm during the case to his conclusion that Hart was sane when he stabbed Lincoln with a hunting-type knife as they struggled in front of their North Elm Avenue mobile home.

Hart is a paranoid schizophrenic who was living with Lincoln and another roommate in housing for people with mental illnesses. After his mental state recently stabilized on new medication, Hart told his lawyer he would rather spend his life in prison instead of committed to a state psychiatric facility with an insanity plea.

"I think you can see, as in all serious, violent offenses such as this, this has impacted many people," Prosecutor Shawn Sant said in handing up two letters from Lincoln's loved ones. "This is just two people and a sampling of what their loss is."

Linda Lincoln, who was joined by a couple of family members, wrote that "Hart has played the insanity card long enough." She noted Hart's stints in Eastern State Hospital to have his competency restored and for treatment while the trial was pending.

Hart could tell right from wrong and "premeditated killing my brother," she said. "I pray that you do not place Hart in a mental hospital. His prior convictions clearly show he's a violent person, that he has no regard for life. A terrorist to our civilized society."

It was an insult that Hart's charges were for second-degree, and not first-degree, she said, and will be an injustice to her brother and society if the killer files an appeal or gets any chance to go before a state parole board.

"Hart will be tried and found guilty once again, as he will commit the crime again towards another victim, if he regains any form of freedom," Linda Lincoln wrote.

She also blamed her brother's death on the Washington state Department of Corrections, saying they gave Hart this freedom for another opportunity to strike another blow.

Rodger Lincoln died of several stab wounds to his head and torso.

Johnson said Lincoln "did not deserve the fate that he met."

"One of the most disturbing parts of the case is it's easier to paint Joseph out as this third-strike individual and a monster, when he isn't," Johnson said. "We have to accept the fact there are hundreds and hundreds of Josephs. Joseph, when he is on the right medication and getting the right treatment, he isn't a threat to anyone."

Hart benefited from the support of his father -- who was in the audience Tuesday -- and the community, but his mental illness was just too great, Johnson said.

The lawyer said he was confident that if he had pushed for a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge would have concluded that Hart really wasn't in his right mind that tragic night in Pasco.

But he went with his client's wish to request a stipulated-facts trial, in which Judge Runge found Hart guilty because Hart has made very few decisions in his life in a lucid state, and this one involved how he'll spend the rest of his life.

"I give him a lot of credit for that. He didn't have to put anyone through a trial. That was never his goal, not at all," Johnson said.

"I think if there is anything we can take away from this case -- other than let's throw Joseph in prison and forget about him -- is the need for mental health court," he added. "Joseph's case isn't a one-off case. This is going to happen again; it's sad but it's true. All of us can make this stop and we really need to. We need to stop saying this is a tragedy and then just move on."

Hart got his first strike under Washington law in 2004 for an attempted first-degree robbery in Spokane. He was doing time for that crime in Walla Walla's Washington State Penitentiary when he was caught with a weapon while fighting another prisoner. That 2006 assault conviction was his second strike.

His criminal history also includes second-degree theft, second-degree possession of stolen property, third-degree assault, second-degree malicious mischief and forgery.

Hart filed a notice Tuesday that he intends to appeal the guilty verdict and sentence.

He was ordered to pay $5,750 to the Crime Victims Compensation Program in Olympia.

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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