A Benton County judge ruled Monday that prosecutors cannot amend a murder charge after the defendant has told the court he wants to plead guilty.
However, Judge Cameron Mitchell still must decide if he will accept Matthew H. de Vore’s plea to second-degree murder.
Prosecutor Andy Miller reminded the judge Monday that he has discretion in rejecting the plea. Otherwise, he said, there is no justice for the victim’s family because de Vore wasn’t forthcoming in acknowledging intent to kill.
Defense lawyer Scott Johnson replied that’s why de Vore is guilty of second-degree murder as originally charged — and not first-degree murder — because there was no plan to kill Thomas R. Christian Sr. until they came face to face.
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As Mitchell was hearing arguments on the issue Monday afternoon, he suddenly announced that he needed to take a short recess. Nearly 50 minutes later, the attorneys packed up and left without court going back into session.
The judge reportedly fell ill while on the bench and couldn’t return to finish the hearing.
The case is back in court Dec. 29.
De Vore, 40, is accused of stabbing Christian once in the chest with an 8-inch kitchen knife as the victim sat in the lobby of Kennewick’s Biomat USA.
Christian immediately died Nov. 24 in front of more than a dozen people.
The 45-year-old grandfather had recently moved to the Tri-Cities to reconnect with de Vore’s estranged wife. Christian and Brenda de Vore dated in high school and were talking about moving to Tennessee together.
Brenda and Matthew de Vore are in the process of divorcing after an 18-year marriage. They have four children together.
Matthew de Vore told the court Monday he “was under a lot of duress for some months” and never intended for what happened one month ago.
“I tried to avoid Mr. Christian ... When I went there I was trying to get there early to avoid him and did not intend to meet him in any way but rather to avoid him,” de Vore said.
He said he was missing his children, and “unfortunately I tried to confront him and talk to him about it. ... And I don’t know what happened, sir,” de Vore said while shaking his head. “Our conversation was an ongoing conversation between us that always seemed to go wrong.”
De Vore told the court that what he had to say to Christian came out wrong because he was angry. He claimed Christian kicked at him so he felt like Christian “was treating me like a dog.” And that’s when he drew his knife and ended up stabbing Christian, he said.
De Vore further said he “didn’t really recognize what had happened until later. I was in shock for an entire week.”
Johnson said he’s had extensive discussions with his client about the facts that would make him guilty and what defenses he may have, and said de Vore wanted to take responsibility and came into court intending to admit guilt.
De Vore tried to plead guilty at his first court hearing after prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder. Prosecutors objected unless he admitted to an upgraded charge of premeditated first-degree murder.
That sparked the question: At what time is a plea officially entered?
On Monday, Mitchell found that allowing the prosecution request to amend the charge, given the timing, “would substantially prejudice (de Vore‘s) rights.”
The judge also said he didn’t feel prosecutors had done anything inappropriate in the case because they initially filed based on what information they had at the time and what would sustain a conviction.
The murder charge does carry an aggravating circumstance that alleges Christian’s death had a destructive and foreseeable impact on others. That would allow prosecutors to ask for a sentence above the standard range.
Miller said he was bewildered by Mitchell’s decision given the case law that had been cited. He said he disagreed with the ruling “more than any other heard in this courtroom,” and told the court that prosecutors were being “treated worse in this case than any other case in the state of Washington.”
The judge then said he had to decide whether to accept de Vore’s guilty plea. He determined it was “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily made“ and that there was an adequate factual basis for the plea, but then Mitchell called for a recess just as Miller was arguing whether it is in the best interest of justice.
De Vore remains in the Benton County jail on $250,000 bail.