Washington Supreme Court overturns Spokane County manslaughter conviction

February 15, 2019

OLYMPIA – Prosecutors can’t add a new charge against a defendant after they have finished presenting testimony at a trial, even if it’s a similar offense to the original charge, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.

On a 6-3 vote, the court overturned the first-degree manslaughter conviction of Michael Gehrke, a Spokane man who killed a hammer-wielding adversary with a knife in a 2015 argument in the West Central Neighborhood.

Gehrke drove to his girlfriend’s house when he got into a fight with Christopher Piñeyro, who was on a bike. Gehrke said he told Piñeyro to stay away because Piñeyro had raped and kidnapped an underage girl. Witnesses said Gehrke got out of his car and pushed Piñeyro off his bike. The two men fought, with Piñeyro swinging a hammer and Gehrke brandishing a pocketknife.

Gehrke said he was being backed up toward a fence and afraid he’d be hit with the hammer when he was unable to retreat farther. He stabbed Piñeyro with the knife, fatally wounding him in the neck. When police arrived, he said he had acted in self-defense.

Prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder connected to a second-degree assault. After all the state’s testimony was finished during the trial, they asked to amend the criminal complaint to include first-degree manslaughter, a less serious crime. The defense objected, because manslaughter involves reckless actions not part of the murder charge, but the trial court allowed the change, saying the defense against either charge is essentially the same.

The defense continued with its planned arguments against second-degree murder. The jury convicted Gehrke of manslaughter.

The high court majority said adding the new charge so late in the trial violated Gehrke’s rights to be fully informed of the case against him and prepare a defense. It didn’t allow his attorneys to question prosecution witnesses in a way that could cause reasonable doubt about the recklessness of his actions. The prosecution asked to add the lesser charge before it rested its case but after it finished with its witnesses and had said it intended to rest.

Previous cases have held prosecutors can’t amend the charges after they rest their case, and there’s no significant difference between making the change right before or right after the state rests its case, the court majority said.

Gehrke’s case was sent back to Spokane County Superior Court with orders to vacate the manslaughter conviction “with prejudice,” which means it can’t be refiled.