Clay Starbuck, 48, was a jealous, controlling, obsessed, greedy and angry man who finally took out his frustrations against the woman with whom he shared two marriages and several children, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor told a Spokane jury today.
But Starbuck’s defense attorney said the case against the Deer Park man, who’s charged with aggravated first-degree murder and sexually violating human remains in the death of his ex-wife, doesn’t add up, and questioned why investigators stopped short in testing all the evidence from the 2011 crime scene.
The attorneys gave their closing arguments after a two-week trial. Jurors were sent home today without reaching a verdict.
Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz described 42-year-old Chanin Starbuck as a mother of five and friend to many “who suffered a long, tortured attack that eventually took her life.” The killer posed Chanin Starbuck’s body after her death in a sexually suggestive manner, sending “a strong message that (Chanin) was a loose woman, a promiscuous woman, who deserved to die a horrible, prolonged death,” Steinmetz said in his closing argument.
Chanin Starbuck’s body was discovered on Dec. 3, 2011. Clay Starbuck, who has no criminal record, said his car broke down that day and he remained either at the car or home on the day investigators believe his ex-wife was killed.
Steinmetz meticulously reviewed for the jury the 80 to 90 wounds that the victim suffered including 10 broken ribs, burns consistent with a stun gun and a crushed larynx. The attack likely took many hours, probably while she was bound, he said.
He also noted that Clay Starbuck’s phone “coincidentally” was shut off or stopped working about an hour before a 9:18 a.m. 911 call from Chanin Starbuck’s mobile phone. A minute after 911 tried to return that call, her phone was shut off for more than two hours.
“Is it a mere coincidence that his phone dies…?” Steinmetz asked the jury. “Or, is it because he doesn’t want anyone tracking him or trying to call him the rest of the day?”
Later texts to two other men — one of whom testified he went to Chanin Starbuck’s Deer Park residence four times that day – were efforts by her killer “trying to find out who was knocking on the door and trying to contact Ms. Starbuck,” the deputy prosecutor said.
Steinmetz claimed Starbuck kept his ex-wife’s death certificate as a “trophy … posted on the wall.”
But during testimony, Det. Mike Drapeau said found the death certificate propped on the top shelf of a locked, walk-in closet. The detective said he didn’t know what the document was until it fell; he placed the death certificate in its approximate position and photographed it.
Steinmetz further noted that with Chanin Starbuck dead, Clay Starbuck would no longer have to pay $4,700 a month in child and spousal support.
“Meanwhile … the defendant is driving two broken-down cars, renting the house he is living in and is laid up, unable to work. He has a perception and obsession that Ms. Starbuck is having nothing but fun and dating other men and having sex with them,” he said.
Defense attorney Derek Reid started his closing argument likening the case against his client as advertising for a movie that piques everyone’s interest, only to find empty promises.
“It’s fair to say when you heard the charges in this case, you probably had some expectations,” Reid told the jury. “You hear pre-meditated murder and sexually violating human remains. There’s not much more that you could accuse someone that would be worse.”
But he noted that his client willingly turned over his phone and DNA samples to police and granted interviews at several junctures. Reid asked the jury, “what is an innocent person supposed to do?”
He detailed evidence such as DNA on Chanin Starbuck’s phone, which came back as an unidentified male, and DNA in Chanin’s fingernails, neck and mouth area that came as a partial match but did not specifically identified Starbuck. Reid pointed out that such a small sample of DNA could have come from a struggle on the very mattress where Clay Starbuck once slept.
“You go to where the evidence is, not where you want it to be. But what have we heard in this case?” Reid said.
Reid also tried to discredit testimony indicating that Starbuck’s daughter, Sutton, had told her father days before the killing that Chanin Starbuck had a hidden surveillance camera in her home. Steinmetz mentioned the camera in his closing argument and told the jury he considered it suspicious that it was never found.
But the defense showed that Chanin Starbuck purchased a camera earlier in 2011 and later returned it. “But no follow up,” by investigators, Reid said. “Again, is this where the evidence takes you?” Reid accused detectives of spinning his client’s statements to match their theories.
“He seemed too open, too willing to share. What if he hadn’t said anything? They would have said, ‘Why are you hiding it. Why didn’t you tell us what she was doing online?’”
Mostly, Reid ripped the state for not testing all the swabs taken by Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken from areas that may have evidence pointing to the killer.
“Why not look at the swabs from the arms? Why not look at the sexual device or the massager, which we know was one of the last things the perpetrator touched?” he asked.
Detectives found what appeared to be blood stains in a second bathroom, collected sheets and a towel that may have been used to strangle the victim and hairs from her body that were never tested.
“When the state wants to take away someone’s liberty, when the state wants to charge you with murder in the first degree … you test,” Reid said. “You don’t convict someone based on what the state said could have happened. You convict based on what did happen.”
“A murder trial needs more than this: conjecture, speculation. If this is enough, woe to the next innocent man who sits there because I hope he cries more, that he doesn’t talk too much or his cell phone was off too long.”
In response, Steinmetz said the unidentified male’s DNA on Chanin Starbuck’s phone could have come at any time or when she let someone borrow it.
Steinmetz also defended the decisions not to test all the evidence. Along with the evidence that was a partial match to Starbuck was evidence of an unidentified male.
“It’s not known whether another perpetrator contributed to this crime,” Steinmetz said. “One thing is known: the match does not exclude the defendant.”
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