Special Reports

Hilton sentenced to life in prison for Richland double-murder

Kevin Hilton has twice been convicted of gunning down his Richland landlords in what a prosecutor described as "the supreme act of cowardice," but he remained adamant he didn't do it on Friday as he was sent back to prison for the rest of his life.

Hilton, 50, was ordered returned to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he sat until a year ago when a state appeals court ordered a new trial for him.

Dressed in jail stripes, Hilton expressed sympathy for the March 2002 deaths of Josephine and Larry Ulrich, saying they were good people and that Larry Ulrich "was a good friend to me."

"They did not deserve to find their deaths in a manner such as this," he said, facing Judge William Acey. "Regardless, I will maintain again that I had absolutely nothing, and I repeat, absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with their deaths."

Acey told Hilton that he cannot "explain the inexplicable," but pointed out that a jury of Hilton's peers had twice decided he was responsible.

"You are guilty in the eyes of the court, and I believe in the criminal justice system in the United States and I believe in the sanctity of jury verdicts," Acey said, his voice rising. "Their decisions are golden, in my opinion, and I respect it.

"... And you are guilty, sir. Times two. That's the ruling of the court."

Hilton's first conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals because of invalid search warrants.

Acey -- of the Hells Canyon Circuit court covering Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties -- presided over the recent five-week trial. The case was moved out of Benton County because of extensive publicity since the Ulriches were found dead in their Thayer Drive home March 21, 2002.

An Asotin County jury convicted Hilton on Feb. 14 of two counts of first-degree murder. On Friday, Hilton appeared in Kennewick before Acey, who sentenced Hilton to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The judge said he didn't have an option in giving Hilton a lighter term because the convictions included aggravating factors that the Ulriches were killed as part of a common plan.

Daughters Jennifer and Lisa Ulrich, who placed enlarged pictures of their parents in the courtroom, were the only people to speak. Acey offered the opportunity to anyone else in the packed audience.

"People say that time heals all wounds, that each day it gets a little bit easier. I can tell you that is not true ...," said Jennifer Ulrich.

"Each day is another day of life that my parents were deprived of. Each day is another day that I think about their last moments and how awful and terrifying it must have been for them," she added. "It hasn't gotten easier and it never will -- each day is a little bit harder than the last -- another day I have to live without them."

The sisters described their parents as kind, caring, fun-loving and amazing, and said they had an impact on others both in life and in death. They took time to thank everyone involved in the case, from detectives to prosecutors to jurors.

But Jennifer Ulrich said she had nothing to say to Hilton, telling the court he didn't deserve her words or thoughts.

"Sending Kevin Hilton to jail for the rest of his life doesn't ease my pain and suffering in any way," she said. "It does, though, give me some relief that a double murderer will not be walking the streets and he will not be able to harm anyone else. For that I am thankful."

A tearful Lisa Ulrich said her heart is forever broken and she would give anything just to be able to hug her parents again.

"I am so sorry I was not there to protect you both, I would have tried, I would have jumped in front of his bullets for you. I am so sorry you did not get to pass away in peace with your family by your side," she said. "I hope it did not hurt for very long, I can't stand to think of either of you in pain."

Hilton had rented his Mahan Avenue duplex from Josephine and Larry Ulrich for about six years.

Prosecutors said he became desperate when the Ulriches served him with a three-day notice to pay up his back rent or move out. Hilton owed $3,475 in rent and penalties and was unemployed, except for odd jobs he did on the computer or in property maintenance for the Ulriches.

A receipt found in Larry Ulrich's hand at the crime scene was made out to Hilton for $3,475. Hilton said testified that aside from himself, only Josephine and Larry knew the exact amount and he could not explain the receipt.

Deputy Prosecutor Scott Johnson called Hilton a coward for brutally killing the unarmed and defenseless couple instead of taking responsibility and finding viable solutions for his personal and financial problems.

Johnson said he took exception to arguments made by Hilton's attorneys during the trial that Hilton was a victim of character assassination.

"I think it's more akin to character suicide that was engaged by the defendant. And your honor heard the trial. And your honor knows that the measure of the man is not whether or not he's made mistakes in his life, it's how he responds to the mistakes and how he responds to the adversity," Johnson added.

"... And he has lived a life free of responsibility. ... And it is his complete avoidance of responsibility that led him to kill Larry and Jo, and that's the measure of the defendant."

Hilton's defense team has repeatedly tried to blame everyone else but Hilton -- including Richland police, prosecutors, judges and jurors, Johnson said. Justice may be blind, but it's not stupid, he said.

"The defendant has earned very little in his life, very little. But the one thing he has earned solely on his own is the sentence that your honor will give him today," he said. "He has earned that sentence and he has earned the right to sit in jail for the rest of his life and contemplate the coward that he is."

Defense attorney Kevin Holt disputed the claims that he and co-counsel Peter Connick were somehow responsible for causing the division in the community over Hilton's guilt or innocence. Lawyers have an obligation to zealously defend their clients without personal motives, he said.

But Holt added: "I have believed in Mr. Hilton's innocence and remain a firm believer in Mr. Hilton's innocence. You're never going to be able to convince me otherwise ... that he isn't innocent."

Holt said he also has the utmost belief in the jury system, but "there are occasions when people get things wrong, and this is one of those occasions."

Friday, Holt filed notice of Hilton's intent to appeal the ruling and asked that all court hearings since January 2006 be transcribed for the appellate attorney.

Holt also said since the sentencing hearing was just a week after the conviction, he and Connick hadn't had enough time to file for a suspension of the verdict or a motion for a new trial. By law, the defense has up to 10 days after the verdict to make those motions.

Connick was not at the hearing.

Acey tentatively scheduled March 10 to address any motions filed within that time frame and to wrap up other post-trial issues. Hilton will remain in the Benton County jail until then.

* See complete Hilton trial coverage at www.tri-cityherald.com/1287