Testimony from three witnesses put the gun in her boyfriend’s hand either during or immediately after a Spokane man was shot to death last December following a bizarre altercation, but Melinda R. Barrera insisted she pulled the trigger, and a jury on Thursday convicted her of second-degree murder while acquitting her boyfriend of all charges.
Barrera, 32, faces a minimum 15 years in prison; she was detained pending sentencing. Despite his acquittal, 22-year-old David C. McLaughlin was not released. He still has two drug trafficking charges pending and a recent federal indictment for a gun charge, his attorney said.
The split decision followed a three-week trial in which Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Sharon Hedlund charged both McLaughlin and Barrera with intentional second-degree murder and second-degree murder in commission of a felony – second-degree assault.
Thursday started with attorneys replacing one juror who had been promised that he would be allowed to attend his pre-scheduled vacation. That prompted attorneys to call in an alternate and have the jury restart its deliberations in the case in which attorneys said virtually every witness admitted lying to police.
According to testimony, Barrera tried to intervene in a shouting argument on Dec. 7 between Robert A. Nelson and a 15-year-old runaway girl. During that argument, Nelson, who was 6-foot-2, 312 pounds, hit Barrera over the head with a phone. Barrera then sent another man to summon McLaughlin.
McLaughlin confronted Nelson, and during the argument a gun went off.
Three witnesses said they saw McLaughlin with the gun in his hand immediately after the shot was fired. But during questioning by Detective Marty Hill, Barrera said she fired the shot and would sign a confession.
On the witness stand, Barrera said she tried to intervene in the argument between her boyfriend and Nelson while brandishing a gun when Nelson went into his bedroom. She said she pulled the trigger by accident. Nelson continued to talk behind his bedroom door following the shot, so no one knew he had been hit, witnesses said. But Nelson had called police, and officers arrived to find Nelson dead in his bedroom, a phone cradled in his hands.
Barrera described the apartment as a place where drug users freely came and went, and said Nelson was angry prior to the shooting. “Up until that point, I thought I could calm him down,” she said. “I didn’t want to shoot him.”
Hedlund, the deputy prosecutor, pressed Barrera on her description that she somehow was a “mother hen” of the neighborhood who was willing to help those in need.
“You are the enforcer in that neighborhood,” Hedlund said, to which Barrera responded: “No. That is not correct.”
Defense attorneys Derek Reid and Tom Krzyminski both told the jury on Monday that investigators failed to show that either suspect intended to kill Nelson or even do him substantial bodily harm, as is required for the second-degree assault charge.
“A murder charge is a big deal,” said Krzyminski, who represented McLaughlin. “This is an opportunity to hold the state accountable for bringing these charges.”
Reid pointed out to the jury that Spokane police detectives did not take the door with what appeared to be a bullet hole. They also didn’t gather evidence from marks on the plaster walls that defense attorneys argued could have been caused by a bullet ricochet. The gun was not tested for DNA to determine if McLaughlin ever handled the gun, as one witness testified, and neither suspect was checked for gunshot residue.
“They have a theory and not evidence. This is conviction by multiple choice,” Reid said.
“That’s not how it works. They have to prove what happened.”
In her closing argument, Hedlund said the trial would have been unnecessary if Barrera and McLaughlin had not intervened.
She said Nelson, who had methamphetamine in his system when he died, lived mostly secluded in the bedroom of his apartment at 1328 W. Dean Ave. Investigators found jars of urine among the clutter, which complicated efforts to find evidence, she said.
“Is there any evidence that anyone in that apartment was in any way scared of Mr. Nelson? Is there any evidence that they were acting to defend other persons when they could have called 911?” she asked the jury. “I would posit that the shooting is fairly clearly intentional.”