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February 21, 2004

Ladner confused, then happy, about acquittal

From: The Columbian, WA - Feb 21, 2004

By STEPHANIE RICE, Columbian staff writer

After deliberating more than 10 hours over three days, a jury Friday acquitted Christopher Neil Ladner of murdering 19-year-old Alex Smith.

Later, an excited Ladner would jump up and down.

But after the verdict was read by Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard, Ladner looked like everyone else in the courtroom: confused.

Jurors acquitted Ladner under one theory of how the murder was committed but couldn't decide on another.

A prosecutor mentioned the verdict leaves open the possibility he may refile charges.

Defense attorney Jeff Barrar said he'll challenge that as a violation of Ladner's constitutional protection against double jeopardy, or being tried for the same crime twice.

Senior deputy prosecutor Mike Kinnie said before he spends any more taxpayer money, he'll consult with Clark County Prosecutor Art Curtis.

Jurors told Kinnie and Barrar there were too many inconsistencies in the testimony and Kimber Douglas, the state's key witness, couldn't be completely trusted.

Douglas came forward to police 11 months after the February 2000 murder and said she was with Ladner when he stabbed, then shot, Smith. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received only 812 years in prison in exchange for her testimony. She'll be resentenced because of a change in state law and could receive more time.

Even though the case against Ladner was circumstantial, Kinnie felt it was strong enough to convict.

"How do I feel? Stunned," Kinnie said.

Barrar said jurors voted to acquit Ladner because of the absence of physical evidence.

No fingerprints, blood or fibers tied Ladner to Smith's VanMall neighborhood apartment where he was killed.

"They didn't have one shred of physical evidence," Barrar said. "And they didn't believe Kimber 100 percent, so they couldn't convict."

After the verdict, Ladner, 28, was returned to the Clark County Jail without a chance to talk to his attorney and fully understand the implications of the jury's decision.

Ladner wasn't free to walk out of the Clark County Courthouse; he has at least 16 months left to serve in prison for an unrelated burglary and assault.

'He's scared straight'

When Ladner's uncle, Steve Gann, answered his phone in Dallas on Friday morning and heard the verdict for his nephew's trial, he let out a deep breath.

"Thank God," he said.

An electrical engineer, Gann had been following his nephew's trial through online news reports and Ladner's collect phone calls from the Clark County Jail.

He knows his nephew, who goes by his middle name Neil, is not the same person he used to take hunting and fishing. But he believed Neil when he said he did not murder Smith, a 19-year-old he knew only through Douglas.

Gann hopes the verdict, which spares Ladner decades in prison, will be the spark Ladner needs to turn his life around. With the permission of the Department of Corrections, Gann said his nephew will live with him in Texas after his release next year.

The rest of Ladner's relatives live in Louisiana, where Ladner was born.

"What's really important in life is to stay close to the people that love you the most," Gann said.

His nephew's not a bad person, Gann said, just someone who has had "tough breaks."

One of Ladner's first tough breaks came at age 2.

His mother, Julie Gann, who is presumed dead, got pregnant at age 16. She married Chuck Ladner even though her family didn't approve, and Neil was born. When Neil was 2 years old, he came down with spinal meningitis and his father refused to seek medical help, Gann said.

Chuck Ladner wanted to leave his son's fate in God's hands, Gann said.

After a day, a frantic Julie Gann called her father, who came and took his grandson to the hospital.

But Neil's fever reached 104 to 105 degrees and did irreparable damage to his brain, Gann said.

The illness left Neil deaf.

Later, Chuck Ladner left his family in Louisiana and came to Washington to work in the logging industry.

For a time, Neil Ladner attended a school for deaf students in San Francisco. He did extremely well and had a job packing parachutes for a sky-diving company, Gann said. Ladner remained close to his mother, whom he communicated with every day by phone.

Then Ladner was lured to Washington by his father.

"We all knew it was a catastrophe waiting to happen," Gann said.

After Ladner came north, his father abandoned him again.

Chuck Ladner's current whereabouts are unknown, Gann said.

"Last I heard, my mother said he was in Biloxi, Miss.," Gann said. "But that's just hearsay."

Neil Ladner was dealt an even more terrible blow when his mother mysteriously disappeared in 1994.

Gann and the rest of his family is convinced she was murdered by an abusive boyfriend, but her body has never been found.

"That pushed Neil over the edge," Gann said. His nephew started smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rough crowd of friends he'd met at Washington School for the Deaf. He became rebellious.

His circle included Kimber Douglas, who shared an apartment at one point with Alex Smith and was upset that Smith allegedly had taken $250 that Douglas had intended for rent and then kicked her out.

Gann said he met with Ladner after he was charged with first-degree murder. Ladner told his uncle that his only role in the crime was helping Douglas hide the gun that she used, and not turning Douglas in to police.

"He said, 'That's the only crime I'm guilty of, is being stupid and still being in love with that girl.' And I said, 'Well, that's likely to get you 20 to life,'" Gann said.

When Ladner walks out of prison as early as next summer, Gann will be waiting. He wants to take Ladner to visit his grandmother and hopes he'll get his life back on track.

"I think he's scared straight," Gann said.

It wasn't only the future of his own family that Gann was thinking of Friday.

He hopes Alex Smith's family gets closure when the "real truth about this case comes forward."

Smith's grandmother attended the trial but was not at the verdict.

Likes attorney now

Ladner's confusion turned to elation after Barrar and an interpreter were able to see him in jail Friday.

"Once he realized what the situation was he was very happy," Barrar said. "I told him that as it stands right now, he's not guilty. ... I told him I thought it was all over."

If prosecutors do refile a charge of premeditated murder, Barrar assured Ladner he'd fight it.

"He was jumping up and down at the jail," Barrar said.

It hasn't always gone so well between Barrar and Ladner. Ladner has worried from the beginning that a court-appointed attorney wouldn't fight hard enough for him.

Barrar is a respected attorney with 15 years of experience who attacked Douglas' credibility throughout the five-day trial.

Ladner was unanimously acquitted on the theory he killed Smith in the middle of a robbery. The seven-man, five-woman jury voted 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal on the theory of premeditated murder, but couldn't reach a unanimous verdict.

Ladner did not testify.

A few times, Barrar had to request a brief recess so he could take Ladner and a sign-language interpreter into an adjoining conference room to listen to Ladner's concerns.

"He had a difficult time throughout the trial trusting me," Barrar said. "He was constantly second-guessing my strategy."

At one point, Barrar asked, "Don't you trust me?"

Ladner responded that he didn't trust anyone but himself.

Their relationship improved after the not-guilty verdict.

"If I didn't earn his respect after that," Barrar said, "I never will."

Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co.