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Originally published Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Tennis coach's killer not guilty by reason of insanity

The man who fatally shot Newport High School tennis coach Mike Robb in 2005 was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity Monday...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The man who fatally shot Newport High School tennis coach Mike Robb in 2005 was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity Monday and sent to a mental hospital indefinitely.

Samson Berhe, 20, stood in court as Robb's family members spoke about the man they lost and their anger toward the legal and health-care systems they say ignored the warning signs of a violently dangerous teenager.

Robb was driving home on West Marginal Way Southwest on June 26, 2005, when he stopped his car, apparently to help Berhe, and was killed by a shotgun blast to the head. Police later found Berhe, then 17, on a barge in the Duwamish River.

At the time of his arrest, Berhe "made faces, contorted his lips, spoke in different voices, spit and drooled, according to the documents. He flexed his arms and challenged detectives to fight," the documents said.

Defense and prosecuting attorneys agreed to avoid a trial after three mental-health evaluators determined Berhe was insane when he shot Robb, said King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mary Barbosa. Berhe had been found competent to stand trial in December.

The acquittal means prosecutors cannot refile charges against Berhe even if he is released from Western State Hospital one day.

"Mike's killer gets to see his family, dream about his future. Meanwhile, my brother didn't get a chance to see how his future would play out," sobbed Linda Robb Boardman, Robb's sister. She and Robb's other siblings spoke of Robb's love for tennis and other sports, his propensity to help others, and the baby daughter he left behind.

They also expressed anger.

"I cannot stand the city of Seattle, its police department or the medical system," Robb's sister Cordelia Robb read from their mother's letter to the court.

"All this was so avoidable," said Robb's brother, Ren Robb. "Harborview [Medical Center] didn't find him mentally unstable enough to hold him. They dropped the ball."

Berhe was twice taken to the Seattle hospital for psychiatric evaluations before the slaying, but both times county health professionals determined he was not in need of hospitalization.

An hour before Robb was shot, Seattle police officers stopped Berhe and another teen in connection with a residential burglary. While talking to the officers, Berhe apparently dropped shotgun shells onto the sidewalk but was released. Because of a spelling mistake, a computer search had failed to turn up a juvenile warrant that had been issued for Berhe's arrest for a previous crime, a spokesman said at the time.

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People who knew Berhe, who is black, told police that he had previously made comments about wanting to shoot a police officer or a white person, according to court documents. Robb was white.

Defense attorney Byron Ward said Monday he had rarely seen a defendant with such deep, intense psychosis. He said doctors found Berhe was delusional, had paranoid thinking and was insane at the time of the slaying.

Berhe's mother, Zewdi Berhe, spoke briefly at the hearing Monday. "I am sorry to his wife and his family," she said. "My son has mental illness."

King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum said he understood the Robb family's pain and frustration but that he had to follow state law. He said Berhe would stay at Western State Hospital for up to life unless he can prove that he is no longer a danger to society.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704

or nsinger@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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