Special Reports

Judge nixes third trial for Kevin Hilton

A judge Monday denied Kevin Hilton's motion for a third trial, rejecting defense claims that jurors were biased by emotional reactions from the victims' family or the knowledge that the man already had been tried for killing his landlords.

It was clearly a circumstantial case, Judge William Acey said, and yet prosecutors proved to jurors Hilton was responsible with even less evidence the second time around.

"There's always going to be missing links," Acey said, referring to jurors' post-trial comments that they suspected there was more to the case than what they were seeing.

"I don't know how that shows any jury misconduct at all. ... They would have had to be extremely naive not to figure that out."

Hilton's defense attorneys, Kevin Holt and Peter Connick, said their client deserved a new trial. Their motion claimed prosecutors "engaged in conduct that was objectionable and prejudicial to a fair trial," jurors filled in the blanks where there was missing or suppressed evidence and relatives of the Ulriches acted up in court.

Connick, of Seattle, couldn't be at Monday's hearing because of a King County case and asked for a delay. But Acey, who drove from Asotin County, said he wanted to get it done.

After listening to arguments on various legal issues from attorneys for about 21/2 hours, Acey determined that none of the defense allegations rose to the level of a new trial.

That means Hilton, who was sentenced last month to life in prison for the 2002 deaths of Josephine and Larry Ulrich, will be taken back to the Washington State Penitentiary this week.

Hilton, 50, had been serving the same sentence in the Walla Walla prison until the state Court of Appeals overturned his first conviction based on invalid search warrants and ordered a new trial.

The retrial was moved to Asotin because of extensive media coverage in the Tri-Cities since the March 20, 2002, slayings.

Hilton was convicted Feb. 14 of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder for a second time. He has appealed the verdict.

The Ulriches of Richland had rented a duplex for about six years to Hilton. Deputy Prosecutors Scott Johnson and Terry Bloor alleged Hilton fatally shot the couple because he owed them $3,475 in back rent and penalties.

Acey, who presided over the five-week trial, said he never saw daughters Lisa and Jennifer Ulrich act up in court as alleged by Connick, Holt and five Hilton supporters, who submitted statements with their purported observations.

"The only people that I found were not disruptive but at least distracting were the defendant's sisters. The other folks did not catch my eye ...," Acey said. "I don't deny that these (supporters) saw what they saw, but it wasn't disruptive and I didn't see the jury glom onto them."

Connick and Holt hired an investigator in Asotin County after the verdict to talk with the jurors. Holt filed answers from seven jurors that he believes show they "speculated on missing evidence."

Hilton's lawyers had wanted to subpoena the jury so each member would be required to testify under oath about their deliberations.

Bloor argued there was nothing to show the jury considered evidence banned from the second trial.

"Certainly the jurors had a head on their shoulders and they could see, OK, that there was a previous trial," he said.

Acey denied the defense request, saying he initially was concerned by a couple of the answers but did not see any impropriety by the panel. He said jurors could have assumed it was a retrial because the allegation date was six years ago and there were numerous references to "prior proceedings" with witnesses.

A majority of the questioned jurors said the trial would have been easier had they been told about shell casings and other evidence that was suppressed by the appeals court.

"We all agreed not to influence each other. We knew there was missing evidence, we just didn't know what it was until after the judge came in and told us," said a female juror. "... I had a lot of unanswered questions and not a lot to work with. It affected me knowing that there was hidden evidence, but we did the best we could with what was presented."

Another male juror, asked about the deliberation process, said: "Look, I'm not stupid, I know that the defense has filed an appeal. I have the Internet and I've been following this case very closely."

"The trial was 100 percent fair and we took our time with our decision. There were certain things a few people knew about but I dealt with the evidence in front of me," he continued. "We took our time in making the decision and it was fair."

Also Monday, Acey refused a request to sanction Connick for prosecution claims of unethical conduct.

Johnson alleged that Connick, when found reading old law books in a law library adjacent to the private jury room, was trying to listen in on jurors through a moved ceiling tile.

Acey ordered the library closed mid-trial.

"There was not a stitch of competent evidence to show that after I declared the library closed he was in there," Acey said.