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September 23, 2004

Ladner acquitted of murder for second time

From: The Columbian, WA - Sep 23, 2004

By STEPHANIE RICE, Columbian staff writer

Jurors acquitted Christopher Neil Ladner of first-degree murder Wednesday, ending a legal saga that began more than three years ago when Ladner's former girlfriend told police he killed 19-year-old Alex Smith.

The case marked the second time in seven months that Ladner was tried on a murder charge.

Ladner, 29, grabbed his attorney's hand after Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard read the verdict.

Defense attorney Jeff Barrar squeezed Ladner's shoulders and patted him on the back.

The former Washington School for the Deaf student was not allowed to walk out of the Clark County Courthouse.

Rather, he was escorted by custody officers back to the Clark County Jail because he has at least 10 months to serve for an unrelated burglary and assault.

After the courtroom emptied, Barrar loosened his tie.

He was appointed to the case nearly two years ago.

"It's been a long road," Barrar said.

The case first went to trial in February. Jurors acquitted Ladner on the theory he killed Smith in the middle of a robbery but deadlocked on the theory the murder was premeditated. So, a new trial on the premeditated charge was ordered by Woolard.

On Wednesday, Barrar said he was shocked by the verdict. The fact jurors deliberated for only five hours led him to predict they were going to convict his client. In the first trial, jurors debated twice as long.

Barrar also felt Kimber Douglas, the state's star witness, came across as more credible than in the first trial.

"This is the second time the state had a run at (Ladner)," Barrar said. "I thought (senior deputy prosecutor) Mike Kinnie did a fantastic job."

Kinnie did not attend the reading of the verdict.

Battle Ground draftsman Wade Rood, 58, was foreman of the eight-man, four-woman jury.

Rood said the jury focused on what the state didn't have to offer as evidence. There was no physical evidence such as fingerprints, hair or fibers to tie Ladner to the VanMall Neighborhood apartment where Smith was killed.

"We didn't feel the state provided enough evidence to convict," Rood said.

Ladner's aunt, Linda Clements, let out a long exhale when she learned the verdict.

"Thank God," Clements said by phone from Louisiana. "It's been a nightmare. We've all just been anxiously trying to get through this. ... I can't even express how relieved we are all," she said, speaking on behalf of Ladner's grandparents and other relatives.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Neil," she said.

Ladner's uncle, Steve Gann, said earlier this year his nephew was "pushed over the edge" in 1994, when his mother disappeared. She was presumed to have been murdered by an abusive boyfriend, but her body has never been found.

Ladner started smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rough crowd of friends he'd met at school, Gann said.

One friend was Kimber Douglas. She later became a roommate of Smith, a former Fort Vancouver High School student and pianist who worked at a computer software company.

In February 2000, Smith's body was found in his apartment.

For a year, detectives at the Vancouver Police Department didn't have solid leads on the case despite interviewing everyone who had a connection to Smith, including Douglas, who denied involvement.

In early 2001, Douglas contacted detectives and said she was with Ladner when he killed Smith.

Douglas testified she'd been upset at Smith because he'd kicked her out and taken $250 she'd intended for rent. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. She said she confessed because she was consumed with guilt.

She was sentenced to 81/2 years but must be resentenced because of a change in state law. A resentencing date has not been set.

Barrar told jurors in closing arguments that Douglas acted alone in the murder and then blabbed about it to friends.

"Kimber Douglas came forward because too many people knew she was involved," Barrar said.

Douglas wanted to get to police before someone else did, he said.

Ladner did not testify during the six-day trial.

One of his former cellmates at Twin Rivers Correctional Unit, northeast of Seattle, testified Ladner admitted killing Smith.

Woolard made an unusual pre-trial ruling that the witness, a convicted murderer, could testify as John Doe to protect his identity. The judge did not want the inmate to be labeled a snitch and placed at risk of physical harm by other inmates.

An attorney for The Columbian objected to the ruling because it was made in Woolard's chambers, not open court. The Columbian also believed the ruling was unnecessary because Ladner knew the witness's identity and could tell other prisoners.

The judge said she will reconsider the merits of allowing John Doe testimony as early as Friday. Her decision could affect future trials.

Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co.