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Washington v. Reay

as corrected: May 6, 1991; Second Correction May 8, 1991.

THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, ON THE RELATION OF LOU TAYLOR, ET AL, APPELLANT,
v.
DONALD T. REAY, ET AL, RESPONDENTS



Scholfield, J. Forrest and Kennedy, JJ., concur.

Author: Scholfield

Lou and Nina Taylor brought this action for a writ of mandamus, seeking to compel the King County Medical Examiner to change an official determination that their daughter, Karen Taylor Erickson, committed suicide. The Taylors appeal the jury verdict upholding the medical examiner's decision. We affirm.

Facts

At approximately noon on June 20, 1981, John Erickson returned home from umpiring a boys' baseball game to find his wife, 26-year-old Karen Taylor Erickson, lying on the floor of an upstairs bedroom. After his initial attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful, Erickson called 911 and shouted to a neighbor to call an ambulance. Prior to the arrival of the medics, Erickson made further attempts to revive Karen, at which point he noticed a stain on her blouse. He also noticed that his handgun, normally kept fully loaded in another bedroom, was lying in a suitcase on the bed nearby. It was later determined that Karen Erickson had died as the result of a single gunshot wound through her chest.

After police and medics arrived at the scene, John Erickson gave a statement to Detective Brooks of the King County Police. Brooks stated that Erickson appeared visibly shaken during the interview. Just prior to the interview, another officer observed Erickson in the back of a police car, apparently crying. Within 1 week of his wife's death,

John Erickson submitted to a polygraph test which police indicated he "passed with no problems." Exhibit 50.

The police investigation turned up no evidence of burglary, robbery or forced entry into the home. Nor was there evidence that a struggle had taken place: the victim had no defensive wounds, scratch marks or torn clothing. John Erickson's alibi -- that he had left his home that morning to umpire a boys' baseball game and later returned to find his wife dead -- was verified. Based on the evidence at the scene and the autopsy findings, Karen Erickson's death was ruled a suicide.

Former King County Medical Examiner John Eisele stated that the suicide determination was based on a number of factors: (1) there was no evidence that anyone other than Karen Erickson had been in the home at the time of her death;*fn1 (2) the "close-to-contact" nature of the wound was typical of suicide cases;*fn2 (3) the gun was found at the scene a short distance from the victim, a fact unusual in homicide cases; (4) the site of the wound was consistent with suicide; and (5) the weapon was loaded and easily accessible to Karen.

Karen Erickson's parents, Lou and Nina Taylor, could not accept the determination that their daughter had committed suicide. Rather, they believed that their son-in-law, John Erickson, had killed Karen. They contacted the King County Ombudsman and expressed their concerns regarding the medical examiner's determination. The police conducted a follow-up investigation in which many witnesses were reinterviewed. The Taylors also enlisted the assistance

of a private investigator, a forensic scientist and investigative media reporters. After evaluating the facts of the investigation and meeting with the Taylors on several occasions, the police ultimately found no basis to conclude that Karen Erickson's death was a homicide.

The Taylors subsequently filed this mandamus action, seeking to compel the King County Medical Examiner to change the cause of death determination from suicide to a "finding other than suicide supported by the facts." The case was tried before a jury in September 1989. Prior to trial, the Taylors moved to exclude evidence of the results of John Erickson's polygraph examination. However, because the issue in the case was whether the medical examiner made a proper judgment based on the available information, and polygraph evidence was among the items considered by the medical examiner, the court ruled that such evidence could be considered by the jury with a limiting instruction. Limited reference was made to this evidence during the testimony, but during deliberations the jury received at least four exhibits indicating the polygraph results.

Based on the language of RCW 70.58.170,*fn3 the Taylors also requested that the jury be instructed that the medical examiner must certify the cause of death to his "best knowledge and belief". They proposed that this instruction be given in addition to the instruction on the arbitrary and capricious standard supplied to the jury. The court refused the instruction, expressing concern that the jury would be confused as to whether the "best knowledge and belief" language of RCW 70.58.170 established a ...


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