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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Avondre Graham gets 10 years in Spokane River trail slaying

Kip Hill and Jody Lawrence-Turner The Spokesman-Review

Billie McKinney, the daughter of the woman stabbed to death as she walked her dog along the Spokane River last year, told the young man taking a plea bargain in the murder case Thursday she can’t fathom the 10-year sentence he was given.

“The world is scary enough without thinking about the man that killed my mother out walking the city streets a few years from now,” McKinney, herself a suspect before being cleared, said in a statement read in court by her attorney, Jeffry Finer.

Avondre Graham, 18, maintains his innocence but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the killing of Sharlotte McGill rather than take his chances at trial. The case against him was shaky, described as having “evidentiary issues” by prosecutors who wouldn’t elaborate but recommended the minimum 10-year prison term.

Graham was sentenced by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann C. Moreno just a week before a trial was scheduled to begin. He will be credited for the year he’s already spent in jail following his arrest.

Prosecutors charged Graham with second-degree murder, which has a maximum penalty of life in prison. Because Graham had no prior felony convictions, however, he was eligible for a sentencing range of 10 years to 18 years. He entered an Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that the evidence would likely secure a conviction at trial.

“There would have been a lot of motion hearings if this had continued,” said Graham’s attorney, Tom Krzyminski. “To avoid the uncertainty, we resolved the case.”

Chief among them was uncertainty over the admissibility of Graham’s confession, which was the central piece of the prosecution’s murder case against him. The murder weapon was never found, nor was there any DNA evidence.

The court had yet to rule on whether Graham’s confession was obtained legally; with the plea agreement, it never will.

McGill was able to give police a description of her attacker as she lay dying in the arms of her daughter May 3, 2012. Doctors later discovered McGill’s heart was punctured in several locations from her multiple stab wounds. In her statement, McKinney said the operating room doctor plugged her mother’s heart wounds with his fingers in a fruitless attempt to get oxygen to her brain.

“I try not to think about all the blood, but my last moments with her were covered in it,” McKinney said.

Police once considered McKinney a suspect in her mother’s death, but detectives later cleared her.

“I keep having this nightmare that my mother stepped outside and never came back; she died covered in her own blood, and I held her helpless,” she said in a statement read in court Thursday.

“The nightmare spirals out of control when I become the suspect in her death and all the while her killer roams free to stalk and attack again,” McKinney said. “There’s no way this can be real, and yet I cannot wake up. This is real. This is as real as it gets.”

Graham and McGill lived in the same apartment complex along the Spokane River.

Graham was arrested four months after the stabbing, following his alleged attack on another woman along the Centennial Trail that September. Although he was a juvenile at the time, he was charged as an adult.

Court records show Graham admitted to stabbing McGill when he was interviewed by detectives. But Krzyminski said he was prepared to argue that confession should be suppressed from jurors.

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla told Moreno on Thursday there were several “evidentiary issues” that led prosecutors to offer the minimum sentence.

Graham still faces charges of first-degree robbery, attempted first-degree assault and third-degree assault in connection with the second attack, though attorneys indicated Thursday a plea deal may be at hand on those charges as well.

Cipolla said during the hearing that Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker “struggled for a couple weeks to come to this decision” about the sentencing. Attempts to reach Cipolla and Tucker on Thursday afternoon were not successful.

Janelle Stone, who identified herself as Graham’s older cousin, told the court he has “anger issues” that medication has eased. She described her cousin as troubled but kind.

“Avondre is not a horrible, broken child,” Stone said. “He is a wonderful person inside and out.”

McKinney said in her statement she’ll likely leave Spokane because of the murder and the memories it evokes.

“I’ll have to move away. I cannot raise children here,” she said.

When she does have children of her own someday, she added, “They will know the punishment for her (McGill’s) murder was a brief stint in prison, leaving him free to do as he pleases while their grandmother never gets to come back.”