VANCOUVER, Wash. — An Army Reserve sergeant who killed his wife last spring was found not guilty yesterday of premeditated first-degree murder.
Instead, a jury convicted 39-year-old Matthew Denni of the lesser crime of second-degree murder, concluding that the bedroom slaying with a single 9-mm bullet was an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment act.
The verdict was a victory for the defense, which had argued that Denni suffered from serious stress — he sustained an accidental gunshot wound at the end of a difficult tour of duty in Iraq, then returned home to a marriage strained by allegations of infidelity. That helped set the stage for the violent act that took the life of Kimberly Denni, defense attorney Thomas Ladouceur said in closing arguments to the jury.
"One thing that can be said about this [murder]: It is a crime of passion, not a crime of planning," Ladouceur said. "How long does it take to reach for and fire a weapon? A few seconds."
The jury's ruling likely will result in substantially less prison time for Denni. Under Washington state sentencing guidelines, Denni as a first-time offender convicted of first-degree murder likely would have faced at least 25 years in prison — and possibly much more. Second-degree murder involves a killing in which there was intent to kill but no premeditation. Sentencing guidelines recommend 10 to 18 years in prison.
From the start of the two-day trial, there was no doubt Denni committed the murder. He had confessed, so the jury was asked only to determine the gravity of the crime.
In opening statements, Ladouceur talked about Denni's duty in Iraq as important context for understanding the crime. But during the trial, Judge John Nichols sharply limited the amount of testimony about Denni's experiences in Iraq with the Portland-based 671st Engineer Company. On the stand, Denni only affirmed that he saw combat in Iraq and that it affected him, as did an accidental injury that sent him home.
But in taped interviews and on the witness stand, Denni talked in considerable detail about his wife's killing, which occurred on a mid-March evening in the couple's apartment in Battle Ground, north of Vancouver.
Denni said the two had been drinking and playing pool, then came home and began to argue. After his wife announced she would leave him for another man, Denni said he reached into a dresser to pull out a semi-automatic weapon and shot her at close range. He put her body in a footlocker that law-enforcement officials discovered in late May in the back of the couple's blue Aerostar van.
Under instructions given to the 12-person jury — most of them women — a finding of first-degree premeditated murder meant Denni made a deliberate decision to take a human life. But the instructions also said the killing could follow in the moments just after that decision.
Deputy prosecutor Michael Kinnie told the jury Denni did just that: He decided to kill his wife, then acted to carry out the crime by opening a drawer, pulling the gun out of a holster, unlatching the safety and firing the gun. Thus it was premeditated first-degree murder, a crime that was callous, cruel and sick, Kinnie said. Only after law-enforcement officials found the body did Denni "start to sweat," Kinnie said.
Ladouceur told the jury that the killing occurred in one swift motion and that there was no evidence that it was planned.
"If he was planning to do this, why in the world would he do it at home, where evidence would be left behind to connect him to the crime?" he said.
The jury deliberated for several hours before reaching the second-degree murder verdict.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com