Judge hears motions in DUI murder case
By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly countered that there is probable cause to charge the 25-year-old with first-degree murder with extreme indifference for the March 2011 death of Ellen Joan DeBondt.
Superior Court Judge Ken Williams said he would consider the oral arguments and appropriate case law and issue a written ruling on defense attorney Ralph Anderson's motion to dismiss the murder charge “as soon as possible.”
“Hopefully, by no later than next week,” Williams said.
Steim is accused of driving with a 0.23 percent blood-alcohol level when she allegedly crossed the centerline and caused a head-on wreck that killed DeBondt, 44, on state Highway 112 east of Joyce.
The legal limit in Washington is 0.08 percent.
DeBondt was a well-known home health nurse and outdoorswoman from Crescent Bay who was on her way to work when the wreck occurred at 7:54 a.m. March 6, 2011.
Steim is being held on $500,000 bond in the Clallam County jail. Her trial is scheduled to begin July 23.
Steim, of Port Angeles, originally was charged with vehicular homicide and witness tampering for her role in the crash and for allegedly asking the passenger in her truck to say she drank alcohol after the impact because she was in pain.
Kelly raised the stakes April 6 when she charged Steim with first-degree murder with extreme indifference.
Charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and witness tampering remain.
“There is no probable cause for murder in the first degree,” Anderson said Thursday.
Anderson drew stark contrasts between his client's case and the 1999 Spokane case of State v. Barstad, which set precedent in Washington for “extreme indifference” to human life that results in another's death.
“This is essentially — the Steim case — a garden-variety DUI in which a death occurred,” Anderson said.
Anderson filed May 31 motions to dismiss the murder charge and to exclude audience members from wearing buttons or badges at the trial.
DeBondt's family and friends have worn pink hearts in her memory during the 15-month legal process.
Before Steim was charged with murder, the defense was prepared to plead guilty to a lesser charge, Anderson said.
Anderson based his motion to dismiss the first-degree murder charge on the State v. Knapstad case of 1986.
“The kind of aggravated, subjective intent that is required by the statute under which [Steim] is charged does not exist in this case,” Anderson told Williams.
Kelly filed a counter-motion June 19, saying the defense did not follow the appropriate procedure for a Knapstad motion.
Nearly 3 times legal limit
Kelly told Williams that Steim's blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit when the wreck occurred.
She said Steim crossed a yellow line and rumble strip before the wreck, had a prior record for alcohol-related driving offenses and was told by companions that she was too drunk to drive only a few hours before the crash.
“In frequenting a bar the very day of the instant offense, drinking and driving under the influence, she not only displayed a flagrant disregard for that dangerousness but also her indifference to the consequences,” Kelly wrote in her motion.
“We have more than the traditional vehicular homicide here, your honor,” Kelly told Williams.
Anderson said in court documents that the charge was “based on the absence of disputed material fact” and was the result of “vindictive prosecution” not supported by state law.
According to law enforcement reports, Steim attended a friend's birthday party at a Port Angeles bar and a nearby hotel in the early morning hours of March 6, 2011.
Authorities said Steim picked up her friend Nicole Boucher later that morning.
The two were headed to Freshwater Bay when the wreck occurred, court papers said.
Steim was driving westbound in a Toyota pickup when it crossed the centerline near Oxenford Road and struck an eastbound Chevrolet pickup driven by DeBondt, who died at the scene, authorities said.
Argue cause of death
Anderson said he will argue that the cause of death was a denial of medical services by an officer at the scene.
He said there is no dispute that the roads were icy the morning of the wreck.
Steim pleaded not guilty to vehicular homicide and posted a $100,000 bail 10 days after the wreck.
She was remanded back to jail after the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring bracelet she was required to wear detected a 0.058 percent blood-alcohol level last October.
Steim was ordered not to drink as part of her conditions of release.
The first half of Thursday's one-hour court hearing dealt with motions to compel evidence that Kelly filed last spring.
“The state is entitled to have concrete information and contact information as to [defense] experts and what they're going to testify about,” Kelly said.
Another motion hearing was set for July 12.
In Steim's past record, she was charged with physical control of a vehicle while being under the influence after a November 2010 incident at a Port Angeles gas station. She was convicted of first-degree negligent driving in January 2011.
In 2007, Steim struck and killed a pedestrian while driving sober at night. It was ruled accidental, and she was never charged with a crime.
Anderson said he will object to the 2007 incident being used at trial.
Steim attended the hearing but did not address the court.
Close to a dozen DeBondt supporters wore pink hearts bearing the name “Ellen.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at email@example.com.
Last modified: June 28. 2012 5:22PM