The man who murdered his drug-abusing wife by stabbing her 31 times with a butcher knife was granted leniency Tuesday by a Spokane judge.
Thomas “Rick” Birnel will serve only half of the minimum prison term set by sentencing guidelines: five years.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor said Cookie Birnel’s history of drug abuse and angry outbursts contributed to the violence.
“The dysfunction in the family is of long, long, long standing,” O’Connor said, describing the murder as “a tragedy that could have been prevented.”
Cookie Birnel was high on methamphetamine when her husband confronted her about her drug problem in their Spokane Valley home the night of March 30.
She attacked him with the knife, but died with it sticking into her chest. Rick Birnel, who owns a Spokane Valley carpet store, was convicted of second-degree murder on Dec. 4.
The sentence outraged a friend of the victim.
“He needs to pay for what he has done,” said Darla Thoeny. “I don’t think this is payment.”
Cookie Birnel’s mother, Mary MacInnes of Vancouver, British Columbia, declined to comment after the hearing.
But the oldest of the victim’s five children told the judge she favored leniency for her stepfather.
“We need our dad as much as he needs us,” said Jennifer Boliver, now an adult. “I know this is what my mother would want. Please keep our family together.”
The family includes Boliver and four minor children.
Boliver said her mother’s drug problem was so far out of control that she even offered alcohol and drugs to Boliver at times over the years.
Rick Birnel, 40, who has no prior felony convictions, faced a standard sentencing range of 10 to 13 years.
Seeking a sentence of at least 10 years, Deputy Prosecutor Dannette Allen said the drug problem was no excuse for what Birnel did. His wife had a history of getting angry and throwing things, but she was not prone to outright attacks.
“This is a case that far exceeded anything necessary,” Allen said after briefly showing the judge a picture of the body.
O’Connor said Cookie Birnel was a willing participant in the killing in the sense that her drug abuse created a climate of confrontation.
While that was the judge’s legal basis for granting leniency, she said it was a tough call. She noted that Birnel had battered his wife before.
“It just isn’t that simple,” she said.
The defense sought community supervision instead of prison. O’Connor ordered two years of probation after Birnel is released from prison.
Birnel read from a prepared statement in seeking an unusually light sentence.
“I beg you to show leniency for myself and my kids,” he said. “I’d give anything to change what happened that night.”
Lori Sullivan, a friend of the defendant, said Birnel was a victim of domestic abuse.
“Yes, even a man can be abused,” she said. “Cookie’s abuse of crystal meth is the real villain in this situation.”
O’Connor said the defendant should have sought other means of dealing with the problem rather than confronting his wife when she was under the influence of the drug.