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Wednesday, June 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ruling to allow mother who killed girl, 2, to be free soon

Times Snohomish County bureau

EVERETT — When Noreen Erlandson was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1992 for the brutal murder of her adopted daughter, the judge hoped to send a strong message against child abuse.

But because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling, the former Bothell nurse practitioner could be freed from prison as early as next week.

The court in October ruled defendants could not be convicted of second-degree murder if the death was the unintended result of an assault, as Erlandson, 50, has contended in an appeal filed last month.

Erlandson was given an exceptional second-degree murder sentence on March 18, 1992, for the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Kayla. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joseph Thibodeau handed Erlandson a sentence four times longer than her defense attorney had sought.

Mark Roe, Snohomish County chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said that because of the high-court ruling, first-degree manslaughter is the most severe charge prosecutors can file against Erlandson.

Under 1992 sentencing guidelines, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 10 years in prison.

Instead of waiting months or years for a new case to go before another jury, Erlandson has agreed to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Snohomish County Superior Court next Tuesday, according to Roe and Erlandson's attorney, David Zuckerman.

Because Erlandson has already served that much time, she will be released Tuesday or soon after, said Zuckerman.

Prosecutors are not happy with the turn of events in the high-profile case.

"To do everything exactly right under the law and have a justly obtained conviction jerked away is maddening," said Roe. "It's horrible when you do everything right, follow everything to the letter and are tossed back to square one because of particular bias and makeup of the (Washington) Supreme Court. It isn't going to stop until the voting public recognizes what is going on."

Zuckerman said his client maintains her innocence.

Roe said that under the plea agreement, if the Supreme Court ruling is overturned, once again legalizing a second-degree murder charge if the death was the unintended result of an assault, Erlandson will return to prison to serve out her sentence for the original conviction.

Kayla Erlandson, who was adopted from South Korea, died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in April 1991. When she was found unconscious in her mother's arms, the toddler had 65 injuries, including bruises, brain swelling, a lacerated liver, a neck bite and a deep scald on her arm.

While David Allen, who represented Erlandson during her murder trial, suggested that Kayla's baby-sitter or her husband most likely caused the fatal injuries, prosecutors said Erlandson attacked the toddler in a fit of rage, then failed to accept any responsibility.

Erlandson is one of more than a half-dozen people convicted of Snohomish County murders to appeal under the Supreme Court ruling. Prosecutors statewide have said the ruling could result in the release of 299 people convicted of second-degree murder.

Since the decision was handed down in October, prosecutors statewide have been flooded with second-degree-murder appeals. County prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, but the court in March declined.

The Supreme Court ruling is based on the case of Shawn Andress, who was convicted of second-degree murder for unintentionally killing a man in a brawl in West Seattle in 1994.

In Washington, prosecutors had been allowed to win murder convictions if the death was the unintended result of assault. The October decision overturned that law. Instead of murder, the court said, the cases should be manslaughter, a charge conceived for unintended deaths. It carries a lesser sentence.

The court ruled that every homicide, by definition, includes an assault, whether with fists, handgun, knife or anything else. If assault could be used as the basis for charging murder, the court said, every case in which someone dies could be turned into a murder charge, which is not what the law intends.

Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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