State Supreme Court overturns manslaughter conviction
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the manslaughter conviction of a Spokane man because the charges against him were amended near the end of the trial, violating the defendant’s constitutional rights.
In a split decision, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court to vacate the conviction and “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Michael Gehrke, then 33, in 2016 was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for stabbing Christopher Pineyro, 35, to death with a knife during a street fight in Spokane. He said the killing was in self-defense.
Gehrke was charged with second-degree murder and the case went to trial in 2015.
Immediately before the state rested its case, the trial court allowed the state to amend its charges to include first-degree manslaughter.
The jury found Gehrke guilty of manslaughter, but not the murder charge.
Gehrke asked the Supreme Court to vacate his conviction for first-degree manslaughter, arguing that allowing the amendment violated his constitutional right to be informed of the charges against him.
The Supreme Court agreed with Gehrke and reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals.
During the trial, the state waited until after calling its final witness to move to add the manslaughter charge. The defense objected on the grounds that Gehrke did not mount a defense to manslaughter, which would have been different than the defense for murder.
But the trial court granted the state’s motion to amend the charges and the jury then found Gehrke guilty of manslaughter.
Gehrke appealed, and the Appeals Court affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court ruled that Gehrke’s fundamental rights were violated when the charges against him were modified at the end of the trial.
“Criminal defendants are entitled to receive notice of the nature of the charges and an opportunity to present a defense,” the Supreme Court ruled. “It is a central right.”
“The prosecutor also mistakenly indicated that first degree manslaughter was a lesser offense to felony murder,” the opinion written by Justice Charles Wiggins said.
In a dissent, Justice Steven Gonzalez said the state had not yet rested its case when it amended the charges, and that the amendment was proper.
“Resting a case means something,” he wrote in a dissent signed by three justices.
“Gehrke cannot show that he suffered any actual prejudice from the amendment,” Gonzalez wrote.