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Originally published October 27, 2011 at 8:59 PM | Page modified October 28, 2011 at 8:15 AM

No murder charge in Ronda Reynolds case

An arrest warrant last week said Ron Reynolds, an elementary-school principal in Toledo, Lewis County, was responsible for his wife's homicide. But on Thursday he learned he won't be charged with murder.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes I did not realize the GUN was returned to Ron Reynolds. I had read it was 'missing' . ... Read more
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An arrest warrant last week said Ron Reynolds, an elementary-school principal in Toledo, Lewis County, was responsible for his wife's homicide. But on Thursday he learned he won't be charged with murder.

The legal whiplash is due in part to the obscure use of a 148-year-old law, the most recent twist in the 13-year mystery that has consumed Lewis County.

On Thursday, Lewis County prosecutor Jonathan Meyer declined to charge Reynolds and his son, Jonathan Reynolds, despite a finding by a special inquest jury that they were responsible for the death of Reynolds' ex-wife, Ronda.

Although the inquest jury heard damning testimony over a week and a half, there is "insufficient admissible evidence" to charge, and the two men could make a plausible case that Ronda Reynolds committed suicide, Meyer said at a news conference. He pledged to continue investigating the case.

"What I think or know are irrelevant," said Meyer. "It's what I can prove."

The case, as Meyer said in a later interview, has taken a "highly unusual" route through the criminal-justice system.

Since she was found dead with a gunshot wound to her head in Toledo in 1998, Ronda Reynolds' death has been ruled a suicide, then undetermined, then suicide, then, last week, a homicide. The vacillation is due to a bungled police investigation, a change in the elected coroner and to persistent pressure from Ronda Reynolds' mother, who is convinced her daughter was murdered.

Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod, who empaneled the inquest jury less than a year after being elected, announced late Thursday he was quashing the murder warrants issued as a result of the jury finding. "There is no purpose in having the warrants served when no criminal charges will be brought against them due to a lack of evidence," he said in a statement.

In ordinary murder cases, police often seek an arrest warrant from a judge after a prosecutor agrees there is probable cause. But once the Ronda Reynolds inquest jury named suspects, McLeod said he was compelled to issue a warrant himself, before Meyer agreed he had enough evidence to file charges.

McLeod will return to court Friday morning to close the inquest process. But it already has kicked off a debate among coroners, prosecutors and lawmakers about his use of a 1863 law allowing him to issue arrest warrants.

1863 law

The Washington Territory has just been carved out of the Oregon Territory — and statehood was 26 years away — when lawmakers first authorized county coroners to find criminal suspects via death inquests.

If an inquest jury of six "good and lawful persons" named a criminal suspect, coroners "shall issue a warrant" for arrest, according to the 1863 law. Coroners also were empowered to act as sheriff, and remain the only state law-enforcement officials with authority to arrest a sitting sheriff. Historical accounts suggest inquests were routine in the early 1900s.

Inquests made sense in the pioneer era, when law enforcement could be sparse, judges rode a circuit and coroners could be the only power to hold a fleeing suspect, said Greg Zempel, both coroner and prosecutor in Kittitas County and head of the state association of coroners and medical examiners.

But in the modern era, that power may be duplicative, even confusing, said Zempel. "I just don't think it's necessary in our current system. The prosecutor needs to act as that gatekeeper, with a decision to move forward with charges."

Gary Warnock, the Thurston County coroner, agrees. "I have a word for this law: archaic."

He assisted McLeod in the Reynolds inquest and was disturbed at the quality of the investigation into her death. Police reports, for example, gave conflicting descriptions of where the handgun was found — in her left hand, her right hand or at her forehead. The gun — on which no fingerprints were found — was returned to Ron Reynolds and here were no crime-scene photos of it available.

Reynolds, who invoked the Fifth Amendment during the inquest and did not testify, could not be reached for comment Thursday. His attorney did not return a phone call.

But Warnock said giving a jury authority to name suspects — and requiring a coroner to issue warrants — can be "pretty scary." He cited Jonathan Reynolds, 17, at the time of Reynolds' death, as an example.

"If the kid didn't have anything to do with it, now you have a murder warrant under your name," said Warnock.

Infrequent inquests

In the modern era, inquests — a formal civil fact-finding process — are infrequent. They are most commonly used in King County, which convenes them when people are killed by law-enforcement officials. The inquest findings are referred to the prosecutor's office for charging decisions.

Dan Blasdel, the Franklin County coroner in Pasco, is the rare coroner who has recently convened an inquest. In 2006, an inquest jury named a woman as a manslaughter suspect after her newborn baby was found in a garbage bin. Blasdel said he called the jury to determine if the baby had taken a breath before dying.

Based on the inquest jury's ruling, Blasdel could have issued a warrant, but instead passed the case to the prosecutor.

That's what McLeod should have done, Blasdel said. "I would have done things differently than Warren did them."

Sen. Adam Kline, an attorney who chairs the Senate Judiciary panel, said his committee would examine the 1863 law in the upcoming session. "If the prosecutor is going to try the case, the prosecutor ought to have the authority to issue warrants and file the charges or not. There ought not to be another voice kibitzing," said Kline, D-Seattle.

Ronda Reynolds' mother, Barb Thompson, of Spokane, who argued for years that her late daughter was murdered, told reporters Thursday that she was disappointed but not surprised that Meyer did not file charges. "I'm ready to live my life for me," she said.

Despite the outcome, Thompson's attorney, Royce Ferguson, of Everett, said the case showed that a coroner should have arrest power to hold other law enforcement accountable.

"What if a sheriff — as the sheriff has in this case — said, 'No matter the evidence I'm not reopening the case,' " he said. "I think it would be a shame to get rid of that balance of power because of a case just like this one."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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