Too early to decide on death penalty, say lawyers for accused killer — (SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER)

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Friday, October 4, 2002


Ronald Keith Matthews has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has been known to go on and off his medication, and to free himself from a cocaine habit only to go back to it again.
The drug makes him hear voices and feel “caught in the middle of a big battle between heaven and hell,” he explained during a psychiatric evaluation in May, less then two months before he was charged with shooting to death a King County deputy sheriff.
Matthews’ lawyers say his mental-health problems are complex — and that they likely have been misdiagnosed in the past. They’re asking for a delay in Prosecutor Norm Maleng’s decision on whether Matthews should face the death penalty until mid-February, contending they need more time to assess Matthews’ mental illness.
But deputy prosecutors say Maleng will make the decision Nov. 4. They agreed to give Matthews’ attorneys until later this month to offer reasons why the death penalty shouldn’t be an option, and they contend it was enough time. A Superior Court hearing is set for Tuesday.
Matthews, 44, is accused of grabbing Deputy Richard Herzog’s gun June 22 and shooting him several times. Police say Matthews had been running naked through traffic in Newcastle and did not respond to the deputy’s pepper spray.
Matthews had a psychiatric evaluation when he was serving time in prison for assaulting a Bellevue police officer. His lawyers say the report — dated May 3 — alludes to some of the complexities of his mental problems.
For one, he was taking two anti-depressants, which aren’t appropriate for someone with bipolar disorder and suggest he’d been misdiagnosed at some point, according to one of his attorneys, Jeff Ellis.
The attorneys also contend they don’t yet have key information that could help show Matthews’ mental state on the day Herzog, 46, was shot, including blood-test results that would reveal whether he was on anti-depressants or cocaine. He told police he was on both.
“The decision to seek the sentence of death is the most momentous decision our legal system asks a prosecutor or jury to make,” Ellis said. “We do not want to present incomplete or unreliable information.”
But deputy prosecutor Tim Bradshaw said that whether a jury will be given the option of imposing a death sentence is up to only one person: Maleng. Under state law, it takes a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty, but whether to seek it is the prosecutor’s decision alone.
Bradshaw said Maleng would not decide until he’s satisfied that he has enough information about Matthews. But the deputy prosecutor said he is confident Matthews’ three attorneys will have had enough time to make their case by Nov. 4.
He said putting off the decision further could cause unnecessary problems.
“It delays closure for the victim’s family,” he said. “Facts, witnesses and evidence become more disparate the more time passes from the day of the murder.”
A trial date has not yet been set.
P-I reporter Tracy Johnson can be reached at 206-467-5942 or