By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
It’s been a long two years for the family of Monroe Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl since the night she was killed by an inmate while on duty.
Members of her family have been present in court every day throughout the intensely painful trial, sometimes waiting in the hall during particularly disturbing and vivid testimony. On Wed. May 15, a jury sentenced her killer, 54-year-old Byron Eugene Scherf, to the death penalty. To Biendl’s family, it was a bittersweet victory.
“I was on pins and needles,” said Jim Hamm, Biendl’s father, immediately after the verdict was read.
Scherf, standing in between his attorneys, did not react to the verdict.
Scherf was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder on Thurs. May 9 after the state was able to prove premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors deliberated for less than an hour.
A two-time rapist, Scherf was already serving life in prison when he attacked and killed 34-year-old Biendl inside the prison’s chapel on Jan. 29, 2011. Proving premeditation was critical to the state’s case, and they were able to prove to the jury that Scherf had contemplated the killing for more than a moment in time. The defense had argued that Scherf killed Biendl during a momentary fit of rage.
Monday, May 13, the jury was given opening statements as the trial moved into the penalty phase.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ed Stemler presented Scherf’s previous criminal history as evidence that the circumstances of his crime did not warrant leniency.
Scherf’s first conviction was in 1978, which resulted in him serving about two years for second-degree assault. He was next convicted in May of 1981 for rape in the first degree, while still on parole from his 1978 charge. Scherf served over 10 years for that crime, and was convicted again shortly after his parole. He was sentenced in May of 1997 to life in prison for first-degree rape, kidnapping and possession of a weapon.
In her opening arguments, defense attorney Karen Halverson informed the jury that she would show that there were mitigating circumstances that warranted leniency. She explained that since he was 19, Scherf had been out of prison for only 26 months, and while he seems unable to function well in society, he actually functions well in prison.
“It is obvious that Byron is a broken and damaged man, but he is not evil,” said Halverson.
The state then called just one witness, Biendl’s father, Jim Hamm. Holding a picture of his daughter, Hamm gave emotional testimony on how the loss of his firstborn child affected the close-knit family.
The jury was given the brief opportunity to know more about Biendl, what she was like as a person, and what she meant to her family.
Named after her father, Biendl was described by her father as honest, kind, compassionate and caring. She would be the first to give everything and expect nothing in return, said Hamm. She wanted to have children, she wanted to teach her nephews to ride horses, she loved the outdoors and she loved to cook. Biendl often cared for her mother, who suffered health issues.
“She was the cornerstone of our family, and now she’s gone,” said Hamm.
The defense called Ellen C. Winter, the records management supervisor at Monroe Correctional Complex. Halverson asked Winter to confirm many certificates all documenting Scherf’s attempts at self-improvement while incarcerated.
Scherf’s transcripts from Walla Walla Community College were presented, along with certificates for an anger management course, a substance abuse program, a course entitled, “How to be Your Own Best Friend,” and most recently, Moral Recognition Therapy which he completed in 2010.
Created by two psychologists, Moral Recognition Therapy is a 16-step behavioral approach to treatment which was designed to help offenders develop to higher stages of moral reasoning.
During his cross examination, Stern was quick to point out that yes, Scherf indeed completed Moral Recognition Therapy, however, it was less than six months later that he attacked and killed Biendl. He also pointed out that Scherf’s anger management course was completed in 1989, prior to his third violent conviction.
The defense next called Eric Mogensen, who was Scherf’s immediate supervisor at the Monroe prison. Mogensen testified that a few days prior to the killing, Scherf had sighed and told him, “I’m tired of doing time.”
Tuesday’s proceedings included closing arguments from the state and the defense.
The state addressed what the defense referred to as mitigating circumstances that should warrant leniency, including Scherf’s attempts at bettering himself while in prison.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Paul Stern talked about Scherf’s attempts at improving himself. After all that studying, and after all that learning about the Bible, Stern paused and showed a picture of Biendl taken after her death, asking the jury, “Is this the best he can do?”
Halverson again cited Scherf’s attempts at changing and improving himself as mitigating circumstances that warrant leniency. She also explained that it was the Department of Corrections that was responsible for protecting Biendl, stating that “this could have been prevented.”
Halverson stated that Scherf’s excellent record while in prison, with only two infractions, was also a mitigating factor.
Halverson also described what Scherf’s life would be like from then on if he was sentenced to life in prison. She described the Intensive Management Unit, where he would be locked up 23 hours per day. The good life is over for Byron, said Halverson.
“He will never have contact with another human being unless he’s in restraints,” said Halverson.
The jury began their deliberations just before 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 14. At approximately 3 p.m. they asked the presiding judge, George Appel, if they could be excused and have the evening to contemplate their verdict. Appel asked the jurors to stay until 4:30 p.m., at which point they were excused.
In the morning, the jurors met briefly in the jury room and announced that they had a verdict shortly after 9 a.m. The verdict was read just after 9:30 a.m. Scherf was sentenced to death.
Biendl’s family met with the media outside the courtroom to talk about the jury’s decision.
“It’s over with and I’m glad,” said Biendl’s father, Jim Hamm. He explained that while he’s happy with the verdict, it’s been an excruciating process.
“I feel like justice has been served,” said Hamm.
Biendl’s sister, Lisa Hamm, has been counting the days since Jayme’s death and will continue to count them until Scherf is dead, either by the state or by natural causes, she said.
“I’m looking forward to the day that he’s not sitting there, eating dinner at night, while Jayme’s not here,” said Lisa Hamm.
Referring back to defense attorney Halverson’s remark, Biendl’s family was asked, “Is Byron Scherf evil?”
The word “yes” was chorused by Biendl’s mother and sister, while Biendl’s father elaborated.
“Worse than that, he’s a monster,” said Jim Hamm.
“He’s evil alright. Anyone who’d do what he did… It’s indescribable,” he continued.
Both Lisa Hamm and her father Jim Hamm expressed their appreciation for the prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement and the jury. They acknowledged the jury’s difficult decision, and the fact that it was surely hard on them.
“We’re thankful to the jury,” said Lisa Hamm.
Scherf was transported to Walla Walla State Penitentiary on Thursday, where he will be housed on death row in the prison’s Intensive Management Unit. He is expected to appeal.
The family was asked if this outcome gives them some closure.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever have closure,” said Lisa Hamm.