After a seven-day trial, a jury deliberated for just two hours before issuing a unanimous guilty verdict Tuesday for Kenneth Slert in the 2000 shooting death of John Benson at a campsite near Packwood.
Slert looked down and remained silent as jurors read off their decision in Lewis County Superior Court just after 6 p.m. He was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs and placed in Lewis County Jail pending sentencing for second-degree murder.
Tuesday’s verdict ended the third murder trial for Slert. Two earlier convictions for second-degree murder were appealed by his attorneys.
Slert was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison in 2008 after he was found guilty of shooting Benson but the conviction was later overturned when Superior Court Judge Nelson Hunt recused himself from the trial.
“I thought it was difficult in the sense that the defense had two other times” to figure out a strategy, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher, who handled the case along with Deputy Prosecutor Steve Scott.
Slert’s defense attorney Rick Cordes tried to convince jurors that Slert acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Benson twice at a campground off Skate Creek Road on Oct. 23, 2000.
The two had met only hours before, according to court documents and testimony, but soon became embroiled in an argument. Slert told investigators that he twice punched Benson in the cab of a pickup truck as the two drank hard alcohol.
“His voice changed,” Slert said during the interview. “He had an evil look in his face sometime, not all the time.”
When Slert left the truck, he said Benson charged him and “mauled him like a bear.” Slert said he returned to his tent, and shot Benson with a white-handled .45 caliber pistol when he attempted to enter his tent.
With Benson on the ground, Slert stepped over him and shot him again, according to court documents and testimony.
An interview between Slert and Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Chief Civil Deputy Stacy Brown was played for the jury. In the recording, Slert calmly explained how he shot Benson and then returned to his tent to sleep. He reported Benson’s death to a park ranger the next morning, he said.
Cordes called a psychiatrist, a forensic pathologist and a crime scene expert to the stand and painted Slert as a loner who had been diagnosed with a panic disorder and anxiety requiring prescribed anti-depressants as early as 1994.
He deflected the prosecution’s claim that Slert’s recollection of events had changed throughout the investigation, and highlighted several discrepancies in reports filed by law enforcement.
Cordes said Slert’s version of events — that he shot Benson as he grabbed for his leg after already being shot once — was indicative of self-defense. He said that Slert would not have known whether or not Benson also had a gun.
“We know that now, but he didn’t know that then,” Cordes said. “He couldn’t possibly of known that.”
The Olympia defense attorney also used his closing arguments to attack the credibility of Douglas Schwenk, a key witness for the prosecution who said Slert confessed to killing Benson “in cold blood” while the two were in Lewis County Jail in 2004.
Schwenk served only 373 days in jail after receiving a sentence of 90 months following his offer to testify in the case. He has since been locked up in a Yakima prison on separate charges.
“That was his bonus for coming up with this story,” Cordes said.
Still, the prosecution countered that Slert’s own testimony was enough to find him guilty of second-degree murder. They also focused on an autopsy report that showed the second shot was fired from only two to four inches away, calling it an “execution.”
Slert will be back in Lewis County Superior Court Thursday to receive a sentencing date. He can still appeal the conviction.