By GENE JOHNSON
SEATTLE – The young man accused of one of Seattle’s most heinous murders in recent years sat strapped in a heavy green smock, his hands and legs shackled to the restraint chair used to bring him to court. He looked up and told the judge, “Get the (expletive) out of here.”
It was just one of the many courtroom outbursts that prompted the judge to take the unusual step of tentatively barring Isaiah Kalebu, accused of crawling through a window and viciously raping and stabbing a lesbian couple he’d never met in 2009, from attending his own trial when opening statements in King County Superior Court began on Monday afternoon.
Kalebu is able to watch the proceedings via closed-circuit television from a nearby courtroom. Judge Michael C. Hayden has said that he’ll reconsider letting the 25-year-old in the trial if he vows to behave. If he does attend, the court will likely consider security measures that could include having Kalebu wear an electroshock sleeve under his clothing that could be activated by a deputy if he tries to attack anyone.
“If at any time Mr. Kalebu is willing to come and to properly behave in the courtroom, I want to hear from him,” Hayden said at a recent hearing. “I don’t want him in front of the jury starting to swear and scream.”
Defendants have a right to be present at every stage of their trial, but can forfeit that right through disruptive behavior. It’s a rare- but not unheard of- phenomenon: Last winter, for example, the defendant in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case in Salt Lake City was repeatedly removed from his trial because he wouldn’t stop singing. The use of shock belts or sleeves is similarly rare, but the devices are typically placed under a defendant’s clothing where jurors can’t see them or be influenced by their presence.
“The judge has to be careful here,” said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t bode well for the defendant that he’s been disruptive at earlier hearings, but the real question is how is the defendant going to behave at the time of trial. You’re almost setting yourself up for an appellate issue if you’re not giving him one more chance on the day of the trial.”
Defense attorneys have thus far agreed with the judge’s decision and acknowledge that Kalebu isn’t interested in taking part in the trial. Prosecutors also agree, but stress that Hayden should revisit the issue on an almost daily basis to make sure that barring Kalebu continues to remain necessary.
Kalebu is charged with aggravated murder, attempted murder, rape and burglary in the attack at the one-story home in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood on the night of July 18, 2009. He’s also suspected in a bludgeoning and an arson that left his aunt and a tenant of hers dead earlier that month. Prosecutors declined to file charges in that case, citing a lack of evidence placing Kalebu at the scene.
The women who lived at the South Park home, Teresa Butz and her partner, had spent the day planning for their upcoming commitment ceremony, including a wedding dress fitting, before returning home, grilling steaks for dinner, watching a movie and going to bed.
Kalebu crawled through the bathroom window and raped the women for two hours as he held a large chef’s knife to their necks, prosecutors say. When he finally started to slash their throats, Butz kicked him off the bed, and Kalebu stabbed her in the chest and arm before she smashed a lamp through a window and dove outside. During the diversion, her partner ran out the front door, covered in blood, begging neighbors for help.
Butz collapsed and died in front of the home, telling a neighbor: “He told us if we did what he asked us to do, he wouldn’t hurt us. He lied, he lied.”
Despite a history of mental illness, Kalebu is not pursuing any type of mental-health defense, say his lawyers, Michael Schwartz and Ramona Brandes. Instead, they said, they’ll argue that he didn’t commit the crime.
Experts have found that although Kalebu might suffer from bipolar disorder, he has been faking or exaggerating the symptoms, and in January Hayden found him competent to stand trial. Since that time, his lawyers say, his behavior’s become worse, including an incident in which he spit at Brandes. In court, he has cursed at his lawyers, the judge, prosecutors and photographers, and he once knocked over several chairs.
The attack kept the South Park neighborhood on edge for six days as police worked to identify and arrest Kalebu. Prosecutors say DNA from the attack matched DNA taken from an unsolved burglary at the city hall in Auburn; after surveillance video from that burglary was released to the public, Kalebu’s mother called authorities and said, “That’s my boy on the video from the news, don’t shoot him!”
He was arrested when a bus driver spotted him in Northeast Seattle.
Kalebu had been in court repeatedly that month for a harassment case in which he was accused of threatening to kill his mother. After the fire that killed his aunt, Rachel Kalebu, 61, and a man who lived in her Tacoma-area home south of Seattle, King County prosecutors asked a judge to revoke his bail in the harassment case.
The judge refused, and six days later, Butz was dead.