Crime

Jury in hatchet killer case says state blew it, awards $2.9 million to widow and family

Kim Meline listens to testimony in Pierce Count Superior Court in Tacoma on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. After a three-week trial in Tacoma, jurors awarded $2.9 million Thursday in damages to Meline and her four daughters.
Kim Meline listens to testimony in Pierce Count Superior Court in Tacoma on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. After a three-week trial in Tacoma, jurors awarded $2.9 million Thursday in damages to Meline and her four daughters. dperine@thenewstribune.com

The brutal 2012 slaying of Robert Meline at the hands of his son Jonathan was the state of Washington’s fault, a jury decided Thursday.

After a three-week trial in Tacoma, jurors awarded $2.9 million in damages to Robert’s widow, Kim Meline, and the couple’s four daughters.

The lawsuit, originally filed by the Meline family in 2013, contended that leaders of Western State Hospital wrongly released Jonathan Meline from commitment, despite their knowledge of his persistent delusions, his paranoid schizophrenia, and a long history of illness and violent behavior. His parents, uneasy about the decision, agreed to let Jonathan into their home after being told the only other option was the streets.

Attorneys for the state argued that the release was reasonable, and that Jonathan showed signs of stability prior to his release from the hospital’s civil-commitment ward.

Jurors disagreed.

Records revealed during the trial showed that psychiatrists at the hospital believed Jonathan was still dangerous, not ready for release into the community and likely to harm others.

Jonathan believed that the Illuminati murdered his real parents and replaced them with evil duplicates who were killing children, according to court and hospital records. He had first voiced the delusion and threatened to kill his parents in 2009.

He was charged with robbery in 2010, after he nearly ran over a car salesman while stealing a vehicle. He was found incompetent to stand trial after multiple restoration attempts failed.

In October 2012, nine months after his release from the hospital, Jonathan killed his sleeping father with a hatchet. He later told police he had planned the killing for months. He was charged with first-degree murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Thursday’s verdict amounted to a crushing loss for the state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Western State Hospital, and a clear win for Jack Connelly and Nathan Roberts, Kim Meline’s attorneys. Eleven of 12 jurors said the state was not merely negligent, but grossly negligent, in its handling of Jonathan’s release, and that the release was a proximate cause of his father’s murder.

Outside the courtroom, a number of jurors surrounded Kim Meline and embraced her. Some jurors spoke to Meline and her daughters through tears.

Meline said after the verdict she was relieved jurors held the state responsible on every count.

“I am so thrilled,” she said. “For our family it’s an acknowledgment of what we’ve been dealing with.

“Jon shouldn’t have been released. It had been apparent to us for a year or two that he needed a structured environment, he needed to be kept in an institution. We knew that when he was out of the structured environment that he was doing all sorts of weird things. It was inevitable that he would get into trouble. It happened to involve our family, but it easily could have involved anyone in the community.”

Attorneys for the state left quickly following the verdict and a closed-door discussion with jurors. Roberts, who also spoke to jurors briefly, said the victory should spur policy changes at the state’s largest mental hospital.

“We always felt that this was a very righteous case, and we’re glad that the jury agreed with us,” he said. “We hope that Western State will receive the message loud and clear and make the changes they need to for community safety.”

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