State prison inmate sentenced to death in murder of guard
In recommending to a judge that Byron Scherf be put to death for killing state corrections Officer Jayme Biendl, a Snohomish County jury found no reason to spare his life.
Seattle Times staff reporter
EVERETT — A Snohomish County judge sentenced state prison inmate Byron Scherf to death Wednesday in the slaying of Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl in January 2011, hours after a jury found no reason to spare Scherf’s life.
“Byron Eugene Scherf, I hereby sentence you to death for the murder of Jayme Biendl,” Superior Court Judge George F. Appel announced from the bench as Biendl’s family members watched in the courtroom.
Biendl, who worked at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, was 34 when she was strangled with an amplifier cord in the prison chapel.
Scherf, 54, will become the ninth man on Washington state’s death row when he is transferred to the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.
Under state law, his death sentence is subject to mandatory review by the state Supreme Court and he could pursue years of court appeals.
Scherf was convicted last Thursday of first-degree aggravated murder, setting in motion deliberations over whether he should face life in prison without parole or death.
Jurors began deliberating Scherf’s fate just before 11:30 a.m. Tuesday and returned with their verdict shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.
In reaching its decision, the jury found that Snohomish County prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that no mitigating circumstances existed to exclude the death penalty.
Biendl’s relatives hugged after the jury’s verdict was announced in a packed courtroom that included corrections officers.
Scherf, who stood with his attorneys to hear the verdict, had no noticeable reaction.
Jurors left the courthouse after the verdict, apparently without talking to reporters.
In a second hearing later in the day, Scherf declined to speak to the court before Appel handed down the sentence.
His attorney, Karen Halverson, told reporters that Scherf was “very sorry” for killing Biendl, saying he had expressed remorse when he was initially interviewed during the investigation.
Halverson said an appeal will be filed challenging the conviction and sentence.
Scherf was the first person sentenced to death in Snohomish County since janitor James Elledge was condemned in 1998 for killing a woman in a Lynnwood church and raping a second. He was executed in 2001.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Paul Stern told reporters, “We’re just very grateful,” citing the work of investigators and the jury’s decision.
Biendl’s family met with reporters after the jury’s verdict, expressing relief and gratitude while saying justice had been served.
“A weight was lifted off my shoulders,” said Biendl’s father, James Hamm, who wore a small replica of his daughter’s corrections badge on his lapel outlined by the image of blue ribbon.
Biendl’s sister, Lisa Hamm, said, “I’ve been waiting 837 days, exactly, to hear those words that he got the death penalty.” But Hamm said she wouldn’t have closure until Scherf is executed or dies in prison.
Scherf, a convicted rapist, was serving a life sentence at the reformatory when he killed Biendl , on Jan. 29, 2011.
During Scherf’s trial, the defense didn’t dispute that he killed Biendl. But his lawyers suggested he didn’t plan to kill her, and said he blacked out in the final minutes of her life.
The jury saw Scherf’s video confession last week in which he said he first planned to ambush and beat up Biendl over something she said.
Scherf’s DNA was found on Biendl’s fingernails. His blood was found on her coat and the amplifier cord, forensic scientists from the state crime lab testified. Scherf’s hands were bright red with an obvious mark across a palm, testified a Monroe police detective who saw him a few hours after the killing.
During the subsequent penalty phase of the trial, defense lawyers argued that Scherf had been a model prisoner over the years and had taken educational coursework, as well as self-improvement classes. He had spent all but two years of his adult life in prison. They noted he would likely serve out his sentence in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
Prosecutors called just one witness, Biendl’s father. “There is an enormous void in our lives that will never be filled,” he told the jury, according to a report in The Herald of Everett.
Stern, the deputy prosecutor, reminded jurors of Scherf’s words to detectives: “If you take a life, you give a life,” the Herald reported.
Apart from the criminal case, Biendl’s death sent ripples through the state Department of Corrections. Three prison officers were fired; four others, including two lieutenants, were disciplined for mistakes made before and after she died.
On Wednesday, the Corrections Department issued a statement, saying, “Today, our thoughts are with the family of Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl. We are grateful for the completion of the trial and penalty phase of this tragic case.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which also includes information from The Associated Press and Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org.