Supreme Court reinstates conviction of Federal Way killer

A Federal Way man’s right to a public trial was not violated when a judge limited public access during a portion of jury selection for the 2009 murder trial, the Washington State Supreme Court said in an opinion released Thursday.

The high court’s decision reinstates the second-degree murder conviction of Joseph Njonge but allows him to appeal on other grounds if he has them.

A King County jury convicted Njonge of strangling 75-year-old Jane Britt and hiding her body in the trunk of her Mercedes-Benz, which was parked outside the Garden Terrace nursing home.

Britt had been visiting her husband, a resident of the nursing home. Njonge worked there as a nursing assistant.

Njonge was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

In 2011, the state Court of Appeals overturned that conviction, ruling that King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh erred by limiting public access to the part of jury selection where potential jurors made their hardship excuses in an effort to be dismissed.

But the Supreme Court said the appellate court was wrong to do so.

The record does not indicate Middaugh closed her courtroom during the hardship sessions but rather that she warned some people who wanted to observe that there might not be room for them, Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the majority.

“Here, the trial court acted well within its discretion to regulate overcrowding in the courtroom,” Stephens wrote. “We hold that the record does not show the court closed the courtroom to the public during voir dire.”

The Court of Appeals did not rule on Njonge’s other arguments regarding perceived violations of his public trial rights, including that a witness was excluded from watching jury selection and that a TV news crew was prohibited from filming the process.

The Supreme Court, though, ruled those were not public trial right violations.

Njonge has remained in prison while his appeal churned through the courts.