First-degree murder charge to be added in vehicular death case
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Chris Tucker/Peninsula Daily News
Amber Steim, 25, of Port Angeles is accused of driving while intoxicated when her vehicle crashed into one driven by a home health nurse, who was killed instantly.

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — A hearing to add a charge of first-degree murder with extreme indifference to the charges against Amber Steim, accused of killing a Crescent Bay nurse in a March 2011 wreck, is planned May 4.

Steim's trial, which was to begin April 16, is now scheduled for July 23 and could last two weeks.

On Wednesday, Clallam County Superior Court Judge Ken Williams rejected defense attorney Ralph Anderson's motion to throw out the murder charge and scheduled the May hearing to amend the charges.

The 25-year-old Port Angeles woman is accused of driving while being nearly three times over the legal limit for alcohol when her vehicle crashed head-on with one driven by Ellen DeBondt, a 44-year-old home health nurse who worked in Port Angeles.

DeBondt was killed instantly in the wreck on state Highway 112 east of Joyce.

Steim also is charged with vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment, as well as two counts of witness tampering for allegedly phoning her mother and a friend from jail and asking them to say she drank alcohol after the wreck because she was in pain.

Under Washington state law, murder-in-the-first-degree charges can be made “under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life,” in which a person “engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to any person, and thereby causes the death of a person.”

If convicted of murder, Steim faces a sentence of at least 20 years, Anderson noted.

If convicted of the lesser charge of vehicular homicide, the sentence would be between 31 and 41 months in prison and a $50,000 fine, prosecutors have said.

Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly filed the motion to amend Steim's charges to include murder in early March.

She also filed a motion to add three charges of contempt of court dating back to 2010.

Williams allowed Anderson's request to throw out the contempt charges.

The murder charge increases the burden of proof the prosecution must provide, as well as the possibility of increased consequences to the defendant, Williams said.

However, the three contempt-of-court charges were not allowed because they are not similar in character to the charges of murder and vehicular homicide and must be tried separately, he said.

Williams said he expects that prosecutors will present evidence of lack of remorse in the trial, and the contempt-of-court charges are not necessary to the case.

Williams granted Anderson's request for a delay in trial in order to prepare a defense against murder charges and to add a second-seat attorney, which Anderson said is absolutely necessary in a murder trial.

Anderson said he intends to contact experts on the effect of alcohol addiction on the ability to make good decisions and to study road and weather conditions at the time of the wreck.

“I have a lot of extra work to do,” Anderson said.

Kelly objected to the delay, noting she had informed Anderson and the court five months ago of her intention to eventually add the charge of first-degree murder.

Anderson said he preferred to schedule the trial for the second week of June, but Kelly is scheduled to attend a six-week trial through early July and will be unavailable.

“I'm concerned that this has been going on for more than a year,” Williams said.

“Closure is needed for the participants and families.”

More than 20 of DeBondt's friends and family members attended Wednesday's hearing.

Steim is being held in the Clallam County jail on $500,000 bail.

She originally posted a $100,000 bail bond but was remanded back to jail Dec. 14 after the alcohol-monitoring device she was required to wear detected alcohol in her system.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 04. 2012 6:16PM
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