The resentencing for a Pasco man who pummeled his girlfriend to death started Wednesday, more than two years after a state appeals court ruled that a jury should decide if the killer's actions warrant a lengthy prison term.
DeLonde Pleasant, who has been in custody since the March 2002 death of Juanita Montelongo, is hoping to be a free man at the conclusion of the highly unusual hearing.
But Franklin County prosecutors plan to present evidence showing that when Pleasant beat his live-in girlfriend from head to toe, it was deliberately cruel, excessive and within earshot of their sleeping 2-year-old son. If jurors agree, then prosecutors will request a sentence that could extend Pleasant's stay behind bars for another 16 1/2 years.
More than 60 Franklin County residents showed up Wednesday morning in response to a Superior Court jury summons.
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Prospective jurors were told they were there for Pleasant's case and that the issue of guilt or innocence wouldn't be addressed because the defendant had admitted to first-degree manslaughter.
Their job is to see if the state has met its burden in alleging that certain aggravating circumstances existed in the killing.
Montelongo, 20, died March 3, 2002, after being pummeled and bruised with boot marks. Pleasant was in a drunken rage and lost control, but said he didn't mean to kill her. They had been dating for at least three years.
The couple's son was asleep in their bedroom during the fatal beating. Montelongo also had a 4-year-old son, but he wasn't at the home.
Pleasant, now 32, entered an Alford plea in January 2003 in a negotiated deal that reduced his charge from first-degree murder.
Pleasant at his sentencing said no one deserves to suffer at the hands of another and described his actions that night as cowardly, but also said he wasn't in his right mind. He was ordered to serve 25 1/2 years in prison because the judge felt the circumstances deserved an exceptional sentence.
The standard range for Pleasant's crime is 6 1/2 to 8 1/2 years.
After losing one appeal, Pleasant succeeded in getting the Washington Supreme Court to review his case and it ordered the Court of Appeals to reconsider. The Court of Appeals in January 2009 threw out his exceptional sentence and ordered it back to Franklin County for resentencing.
Because prosecutors said they would seek the same prison term, the court said it must seat a jury to review the aggravating factors.
Defense lawyer Karla Kane has said she will show through testimony that Pleasant was "suffering from a disability" when he killed his girlfriend.
The judicial process was slowed down when Kane informed the court at 9 a.m. Wednesday that she had a proposed jury questionnaire.
Judge Cameron Mitchell said he was concerned about the timing of the motion because the jurors already had been waiting in another courtroom for a half-hour. He asked why it wasn't brought before the court at an earlier hearing.
Kane apologized and said it is been her experience in other jurisdictions to discuss questionnaires the morning of trial.
She added that with the particulars of this case and the media attention it has garnered over the years, "there is definitely concern in terms of seeking an impartial jury that is going to be able to look at the issues fairly and impartial to this case."
Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny did not object to the request.
Mitchell said he was reluctant given the lateness of the motion, but agreed that a questionnaire would help the court and lawyers determine who they needed to individually talk with about their knowledge of the case and prior experience with domestic violence or addiction.
Court clerks then made several dozen copies of the questionnaire and passed it out to prospective jurors. Then the completed questionnaires were copied so Mitchell and the lawyers could review the answers and decide who to call in.
The document had 24 questions, including ethnicity, level of education and job and marital status. It also asked people about their experiences with alcohol or drug use and domestic violence, and if viewing gruesome photos from the crime scene and autopsy would upset them or influence them to the point they can no longer be impartial.
The court individually questioned 28 people Wednesday, and excused eight of them. Another 14 are set to come in this morning, before the entire remaining panel returns in the afternoon.
Jenny notified the court that his wife had received a jury summons for this case and was dismissed in advance because of the obvious conflict. Another juror quickly was dismissed Wednesday after informing the court they had lived on Eighth Avenue next door to the couple at the time of the slaying.
One prospective juror acknowledged that he has been a recovering alcoholic for 24 years. He said if anything, it gives him "a better perspective what somebody with those types of problems goes through."
Another man said his cousin and her daughter were shot and killed by the woman's ex-husband about 10 years ago in Pennsylvania, but said it wouldn't affect his objectivity in this case.
A woman told the court that since Pleasant's arrest, she has "read that (case) like crazy every day and listened on the news" and cannot get past what he did. It was "disgusting" and "sad," she said, acknowledging that she has formed strong opinions.
Excused along with her was a juror who said he is "a pretty strong believer that domestic violence is wrong."
"I feel that there is no reason for it," he added. "It's easiest just to walk away from a situation."