Opening statements kick off Kent murder trial | Did Phillip kill Frankel?

Jail officers lead William L. Phillip Jr. out of the courtroom Monday in Kent during a recess in his murder trial. Prosecutors accuse Phillip of stabbing to death Seth Frankel in May 2010.  - STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter
Jail officers lead William L. Phillip Jr. out of the courtroom Monday in Kent during a recess in his murder trial. Prosecutors accuse Phillip of stabbing to death Seth Frankel in May 2010.
— image credit: STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter

King County prosecutors plan to prove to a jury over the next few weeks that William L. Phillip Jr. killed Seth Frankel because he was angry about Frankel's romantic relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

Defense attorneys, however, claim Phillip, 33, of Oregon, had no anger toward Frankel and that someone else killed the 41-year-old man, a city of Kent employee, on May 21, 2010 in the Auburn home he shared with Bonny Johnson.

"Seth Frankel should be 44 years old," Deputy Prosecutor Patrick Hinds said to jurors during his opening statement Monday at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. "He's not. His life was cut short by the defendant, William Phillip Jr. We will ask you to return a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt of all the evidence you hear that will show William Phillip committed a pre-meditated murder and we will ask for a guilty verdict."

Phillip faces a first-degree murder charge in the trial in front of King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas. He pleaded not guilty to the charge in March 2011 after his arrest by Auburn Police in December 2010 in Portland.

"The main unanswered question you will have is who killed Mr. Frankel?" defense attorney Anuradha Luthra said to the jury. "It is the state's job to answer that question. But you are not here to answer that big question. The question is did Mr. Phillip kill Mr. Frankel and the answer is no. The state will not be able to prove its case to you because Mr. Phillip did not kill Mr. Frankel.

"At the end of this case after all that you've seen, heard and learned, you will know that Mr. Phillip is not guilty."

The trial is expected to last for a few more weeks. Phillip remains in custody at the county jail in Kent.

Frankel, a city video-program coordinator, was stabbed to death inside his Auburn home. He was discovered the following day by a neighbor whom Johnson asked to check on Frankel's welfare. When the neighbor looked through a window, he saw the body.

"He had a normal life," Hinds said about Frankel. "He loved his family. He was well-liked and respected by his friends, colleagues and co-workers."

More than a dozen family and friends of Frankel, including his mother and father, were in court Monday during opening statements. Hinds said Frankel and his wife divorced in 2010 but that they maintained a polite and cordial relationship, and he went to all of the events of their two young daughters.

As part of their presentation, prosecutors displayed a photo of Frankel on vacation in Hawaii taken by Johnson, a woman he initially knew from when he worked in California prior to moving to Kent in 2007. Johnson worked in Portland at Oregon Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) while she and Frankel shared the Auburn home on a quiet, residential street across from an alternative high school.

The day of the murder

Frankel worked at Kent City Hall on the Friday of his death. He went to a daughter's event in the evening and at 8:20 p.m. went shopping for camping gear for a planned trip alone that weekend. His girlfriend, Johnson, planned a trip with a female friend to the Oregon Coast and wasn't returning that weekend to Auburn.

Johnson called Frankel that Friday night and again in the morning and could not reach him, which was unusual, Hinds said. Johnson asked a neighbor to check on him. The neighbor didn't get any answer to his knocks on the doors and windows and then saw Frankel laying on the floor inside.

When police and paramedics arrived, they kicked down the door and found Frankel dead inside.

"The living room was in disarray and he had obviously been stabbed," Hinds said. "There was blood on his chest and around the room."

An end table had been turned over and a Uno card game scattered around the room.

Two zip ties of about 18 inches were discovered, one underneath a table in the room and one on the upper arm of Frankel. Nothing was missing from the home. Frankel still had his wallet, no valuables were taken. Robbery or theft was not the motive, Hinds said.

Auburn Police talked to Johnson who told them about Phillip as a possible suspect. She had dated Phillip in Portland, but broke up with him 1 to 1 1/2 years prior to May 2010. They did meet once a month or so for a drink. About a month prior to killing, he told her he still loved her. They had exchanged text messages up until May 21.

There was no known connection between Frankel and Phillip, other than they each knew Johnson and knew of each other.

"The burden is on the state to prove Mr. Phillip guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Hinds said. "That's a burden we welcome because at the end of the day it's not really us that need to convince you of anything. The evidence will speak for itself."

Crime evidence

Detectives focused on a towel with blood stains found on the living room floor. The Washington State Crime Lab found a DNA match to Frankel and a match to Phillip, Hinds said.

Detectives talked to Phillip. He confirmed he knew Johnson, but described his relationship with her as a friend and downplayed the nature of the relationship as described by Johnson.

"He had bruising on his fingers on his right hand as well as cuts," Hinds said. "He told them he had been in an accident at work and hurt his hand."

Phillip worked at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. His co-workers and supervisors confirmed he had a relationship with Johnson, Hinds said. He worked as an audio visual technician. Co-workers said he hurt his hand at work, but bruised it and didn't cut it.

Phillip had access at work to zip ties that held cables. The zip tides are almost identical to the ones found in Frankel's living room and on his arm.

Phillip's primary mode of transportation was a motorcycle. But he borrowed a white Ford Mustang from his mother on May 21 that he reportedly drove to Auburn. Oregon State Patrol Crime Lab found blood on the driver's side door and on the dashboard, but not enough to test for DNA, Hinds said.

Cellphone records put Phillip at 4 p.m. in Kent about three to four blocks from where Frankel worked at Kent City Hall. At 7 p.m., cellphone records put Phillip four or five blocks from where Frankel lived.

Hinds said at 8:52 p.m., Phillip's phone records still showed him near Frankel's house in Auburn. At 8:56 p.m., Phillip made call to a friend in Oregon. He headed back to Oregon, and made another call at 12:04 a.m. May 22 from a Portland cell tower.

"What exactly happened in that apartment we may never know the answer to every single question you might have," Hinds said. "But we will lay out what you need to find and don't need to find."

Jurors will hear from the King County Medical Examiner's Office that the injuries to Frankel, the major one a wound to the throat, severed an artery and he bled to death. He also had wounds on his left hand, a deep cut across the palm and cuts to his knuckles and fists, a cut off a portion of a finger, a wound near his knee and elbow as well as blunt force trauma to his head.

"The evidence will show that on May 21, 2010 the defendant committed pre-meditated murder of Seth Frankel in Auburn, Washington," Hinds said.

Defense opening statement

When defense attorney Luthra approached the jurors, she portrayed Phillip as a man who cooperated with police.

"He stayed at the same job and apartment for over six months when under criminal investigation," she said. "He opened the door for police when they showed up at his door to arrest him."

Luthra said the state will bring in more than 50 witnesses - police officers, scientists, as well as friends and family of Frankel and Phillip.

"Not one witness can put Mr. Phillip inside Mr. Frankel's home the night of the murder," she said. "Not one witness can say that Mr. Phillip knew where Mr. Frankel lived. Not one witness can say that Mr. Phillip ever made any sort of threat or wished any kind of violence or harm to come to Mr. Frankel."

Luthra described the state's case as circumstantial evidence that Phillip killed Frankel, but that the jurors will see Phillip did not kill him.

The defense attorney said the neighbor, who found the body the next day, was home the entire evening watching a baseball game on TV about 20 feet away from Frankel's home and he heard nothing unusual until after 10 p.m. that night.

"The closest the state can put Mr. Phillip to Mr. Frankel's home is one-half mile," Luthra said. "Mr. Phillip left Auburn before 9 p.m. You will learn from the medical examiner that there is a large window of time when Mr. Frankel could have been killed from around 8 p.m. to 4 a.m."

Luthra added that cellphone records will show Phillip was only around during one of those hours.

Detectives found DNA from three unidentified sources in the house, Luthra said. She said they only found a small amount of DNA on a towel that matched Phillip.

"You will hear and learn from the DNA expert that DNA can remain on an object for decades and can be transferred from an object to another object," she said. "DNA experts cannot tell you if Phillip's DNA came from blood, saliva or another type of bodily fluid."

No motive

Luthra said Phillip had nothing against Frankel.

"The state will try to convince you that Mr. Phillip's motive to kill Mr. Frankel had to do with Bonny Johnson," she said. "You will want to hear what Mr. Phillip said to have anything against Mr. Frankel."

The defense attorney said one text message by Phillip to Johnson described Frankel as "Old and unhot." Frankel was 41 at the time of his death while Phillip and Johnson were each about 30.

"There were no threats of violence," Luthra said.

Luthra continued to try to punch holes in the state's case when she said the zip ties found on Frankel and in his home were not the same as those found at the Oregon Convention Center where Phillip worked and could have been purchased by anyone anywhere.

She said Phillip suffered a hand injury at work and that the injury looked the same before and after the date Frankel was killed.

As for the reason Phillip drove to Auburn that Friday night, Luthra said he had a close family member pass away and was rather upset by it.

"You will hear from those that know him that when he's upset he tends to go for a drive to clear his head and that is what he did on May 21," she said.

The cellphone records simply show he was near the freeway he drove between Portland and Kent, Luthra said.

"For Mr. Phillip, it was an uneventful day," she concluded in her opening statement to the jury.

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