Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ronda Reynolds

Ronda Reynolds was born in 1965. She was the youngest female cadet accepted into the Washington State Patrol in 1985. Ronda served on patrol for almost 10 years. She resigned and later married Ron Reynolds, an elementary school principal in 1997.

On December 16, 1998, Ron Reynolds called 911 and reported that Ronda just "committed suicide." Lewis County Sheriff's Deputies found Ronda dead in her walk-in bathroom closest. She was lying on her left side, wearing pajamas, and was covered by an electric blanket with her head on a pillow. A second pillow covered her head. Her right hand was under the blanket and her left hand was clutching the blanket. She died from a single gunshot wound in front of her right ear. She was 33 years old.

A little over three years ago Marty Hayes called and asked me to meet Barb Thompson, Ronda's mother. Marty is founder and president of The Firearms Academy of Seattle. He had been working on the case for a couple of years and said Barb was looking for a lawyer to help her get some answers about her daughter's death.

The coroner changed his determination three times between 1998 and 2002 — to suicide from undetermined, then back to undetermined, and finally suicide.

The more they explained the case, the more unbelievable it seemed. For example, there were no fingerprints on the revolver. The husband had signed a $50,000 life insurance form and mailed it in with a premium right after Ronda's death. Jerry Berry, the lead homicide detective assigned to the case, believed the death scene was a "staged suicide." Berry kept working on the case but one day was suddenly ordered "off the case" and demoted back to patrol. He never quit working on the case-- even after he resigned from the Lewis County Sheriff's Department because of continuing harassment.

The probate had long been opened and closed and it was too late to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the husband. So, Marty pointed out an unused state law that allowed somebody like Barb to challenge a death certificate in court. It looked a little late for that, too, and although we were thrown out of court, we prevailed on appeal and were sent back to Lewis County Superior Court for a trial. The appeal is reported in Thompson v. Wilson, 142 Wn.App. 803 (2008) . Jury trial began on November 2, 2009.

This is from the Chehalis Chronicle--

A jury concluded Tuesday that Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson's suicide determination in a death 11 years ago was incorrect. The unprecedented judicial review is the latest twist in the case of Ronda Reynolds, a former state patrol trooper who was found shot dead under an electric blanket in a walk-in closet at her Toledo home on Dec. 16, 1998.

Reynolds' mother Barbara Thompson has never agreed with the determination that her daughter committed suicide.She first filed a civil suit in 2006. Her case was facilitated by a state law passed in 1987 that allows the determination of coroners and medical examiners to be subjected to judicial review.

Ferguson called a ballistics expert, a forensic pathologist, former Sheriff's Office employees and friends of Reynolds to the stand.

(That's Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds--no relationship-- the reknown forensic pathologist, recalling where exactly in all the evidence he noted lividity, which supported his opinion that Ronda died earlier than when claimed by Ron Reynolds).

Jurors faced three questions, all of which they answered unanimously in favor of Thompson:

Question 1: Was the coroner’s determination of suicide accurate?Jury: No.

Question 2: Did you find the coroner’s determination of suicide more likely than not?Jury: Not likely.

Question 3: Did you find the coroner’s determination of suicide arbitrary and capricious?Jury: Yes.

The judge denied Thompson’s request to ask the jury whether the official cause of death could be changed to a homicide, saying there was no legal authority to make such a determination.

(Jerry Berry, Royce Ferguson, Marty Hayes)

The little guy can fight city hall. It's just not easy.

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