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Originally published May 2, 2011 at 8:23 PM | Page modified May 2, 2011 at 10:51 PM

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Conviction reversed in strangling outside Federal Way nursing home

An appellate court has overturned the second-degree murder conviction of a man accused of beating and strangling an elderly woman outside a Federal Way nursing home in 2008.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes He's not free yet. He'll stay in custody until the Supreme Court decides the case (or... Read more
quotes Actually, the judges on the court of appeals are pretty good. They're bound by the... Read more
quotes Another heartless murderer set free on a technicality. It's beyond ridiculous! And now ... Read more

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The state Court of Appeals has overturned the second-degree murder conviction of a man accused of killing a woman at a Federal Way nursing home in 2008.

Joseph Njonge was convicted by a jury in June 2009 and sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.

On Monday, the court found Njonge had been denied his constitutional right to a public trial when King County Superior Court Judge Laura Middaugh closed the courtroom during a portion of jury selection because of limited space.

Jane Britt, 75, was strangled in the parking lot of her husband's nursing home on March 18, 2008. Her body was found in the trunk of her car the next day.

Police said Britt scratched her attacker so hard that they were able to cull Njonge's DNA from the skin cells under her fingernails. Her husband's Costco card was found in Njonge's wallet.

Njonge, an immigrant from Kenya, worked at the home as a nursing assistant.

Howard Britt, 57, the victim's son, said a member of his family was able to sit in the courtroom during jury selection.

"For the want of a seat or two in the jury selection, you throw out the conviction of the man who murdered my mother? I ask, is that justice?"

Attorney Phil Sayles, who represented Njonge, declined to talk about the appeals court's decision. Sayles did not object when Middaugh closed the courtroom.

Appellate judges say there is no indication anybody was asked to leave the courtroom and at the time nobody objected to a closure. But, the court said, before closing the courtroom, Middaugh should have used a five-part analysis established by the state Supreme Court in a 1995 case involving a defendant named Joe Bone-Club.

The analysis requires trial judges to rule after hearing a compelling argument from both sides about the need to close the court and after allowing people in the court a chance to object.

In Njonge's case, Middaugh did not weigh the five factors, the appellate court ruled.

Prosecutors said they will appeal the ruling.

Monday's ruling is the second time in less than a month that the appeals court has reversed a King County murder conviction because of a failure to weigh the Bone-Club factors.

Tinh Trinh Lam was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007 in the killing of his girlfriend in 2005. Lam appealed, saying King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell "violated his constitutional right to a public trial by interviewing a previously seated juror in chambers without first conducting a Bone-Club analysis," according the appeals court.

The state Supreme Court will hear four similar court-closure cases this week. Its ruling could determine whether dozens of other defendants could potentially be retried, according to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

"When a trial judge is faced with the practical realities of managing a courtroom that is too crowded during one day of jury selection, the defendant should not automatically get a new trial after he is convicted weeks later" King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in a news release. "When there is no harm, the conviction should stand."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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