In the early morning hours of July 17, 2006, Conner M. Schierman, age 24, breaks into the home of the Milkin family and stabs to death Olga Milkin, age 28, her two sons, Justin, age 5 and Andrew, age 3, and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, age 24, with a hunting knife. Hours later, he douses the house with gasoline and sets it on fire. On Wednesday night, July 19, Kirkland police arrest Schierman for arson and first-degree murder. He confesses to the arson, but claims he had been drinking heavily that night and has no recollection of the homicides. On April 12, 2010, after a three-month trial, a King County jury finds Schierman guilty of four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson. On May 5, 2010, after the penalty phase of the trial, the jury mandates the death penalty. However, in 2018 in a different case the state supreme court will invalidate the death penalty statute as arbitrary and biased, converting Schierman's sentence to life without possibility of parole.
Four Deaths and a Fire
At 11:32 a.m., Monday July 17, 2006, the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center received a report of a fire at 9520 Slater Avenue NE, near Forbes Lake in Kirkland. The Kirkland Fire Department arrived at the scene at 11:38 a.m. and found the house engulfed in flames. It took firefighters approximately one hour to extinguish the blaze and another four hours to stabilize the building enough for investigators to enter. Four bodies were discovered on the second floor in the northeast corner of the house. The home belonged to Leonid Milkin, age 29, a sergeant in the Washington National Guard stationed in Iraq. The victims were identified as Olga L. Milkin (1977-2006), age 28, Leonid's wife; her two sons, Justin D. (2000-2006), age 5, and Andrew B. (2002-2006), age 3; and her sister, Lyubov L. Botvina (1981-2006), age 24, a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University who was living with the family while studying for a bachelors degree in foreign languages.
On Tuesday, July 18, federal agents from the Seattle office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) used a trained dog to search the ruins and determined that an accelerant had been used to ignite fires in several areas of the two-story house. Autopsies, performed by the King County Medical Examiner's Office, revealed that all four victims had died before the fire from multiple stab wounds to the upper body, head and neck. Both children's throats had been slashed.
Two neighbors reported seeing a man lurking around the Milkin property just before the fire, carrying a red gasoline container. The suspect was described as a heavy-set, white male in his mid-20s, with a distinctive tattoo of a green dragon on his left biceps and deep scratches on his face. He lived in the duplex directly across Slater Avenue from the Milkins and had only moved into the neighborhood two weeks earlier.
Arrest, Questioning, and Charging
On Wednesday afternoon, July 19, Kirkland Police Detective Brad Porter arrested Conner Michael Schierman as the prime suspect. He not only fit the description of the arsonist, with a tattoo and scratches on his face, but also had a deep stab wound to his left arm. Schierman claimed he received the injuries while breaking up a fight at nearby convenience store on Tuesday. A review of the store's surveillance tape, however, showed the explanation to be untrue. He was held for investigation of homicide and arson at the King County Jail. During a search of Schierman's residence, investigators found a pair of running shoes in his bedroom bearing traces of blood and gasoline. The shoe treads matched footprints found at and near the scene of the crime.
During questioning, Schierman told Detective Porter he drank three bottles of Ketel One vodka on Sunday night, blacked out, and awoke late Monday morning in the master bedroom of the Milkin residence with four dead bodies. He removed his bloody clothes, showered and dressed in a set of lavender hospital scrubs he found in the house. Schierman drove to a nearby convenience store with a red, one-gallon container and filled it with gasoline. He returned to the house, splashed gasoline around the interior and on the bodies, and set it ablaze. Then he went home and went to bed.
Meanwhile, investigators from the Kirkland police and fire departments, the Washington State Patrol and BATFE sifted through the burned rubble of the Milkin house, placing anything believed to be evidence in plastic garbage bags. They found a hunting knife at the foot of the stairs and bloody clothes, a flashlight, and a partially burned glove in the same bedroom as the women's bodies.
On Thursday, July 20, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott M. O'Toole filed a complaint in Superior Court charging Schierman with murder and arson. He appeared before Judge D. Mark Eide, who set bail at $4 million. Schierman's attorney, James W. Conroy, objected to the high bail, but O'Toole maintained it was justified because the defendant posed a significant risk to the community. Although Schierman had no criminal record, he had been recently released from the Lakeside-Milam Recovery Center in Kirkland, after completing a program for substance abuse. He had been living in a halfway house.
More than 2,000 people attended a memorial service for the Milkin family, held on Sunday, July 23, at The City Church, 9051 132nd Avenue NE in Kirkland. The service was officiated by the pastors of The City Church, Harvest Christian Center in Issaquah and Christian Faith Center in Mill Creek. Sergeant Leonid Milkin had been airlifted from Iraq to Tacoma and was in attendance.
Present at the invitation of the family were 36 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who regularly attend funerals of military personnel, police officers, and firefighters. The Patriots, all carrying American flags, formed an honor guard at the church entrance and assisted police in shepherding the profusion of mourners to the cemetery. The funeral procession, one of the largest seen in King County in many years, proceeded to Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, 11111 Aurora Avenue N, Seattle, where the four victims were interred.
The Schierman Case
On Monday, July 24, King County Prosecutor Norman K. Maleng (1938-2007) filed an information in Superior Court, charging Schierman with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson. His bail was increased to $10 million. At his arraignment before Judge Gregory P. Canova on Monday, July 31, Schierman pleaded not guilty to all charges. Prosecutor Maleng then informed the court the state intended to pursue the death penalty. (In Washington, only an aggravated first-degree murder conviction qualifies a defendant for capital punishment. In addition to being premeditated, there must be at least one "aggravating factor" that makes the crime worse. In Schierman's case, it was multiple victims, brutality, and arson to conceal the crime.)
As is common in serious, high-profile cases, especially those involving the death penalty, it took more than three years (during which Schierman remained in the King County Jail) before the trial began. Jury selection got underway in November 2009. Three thousand potential jurors were summoned for this high profile case and asked to fill out questionnaires regarding capital punishment. In order to impanel a death-qualified jury, jurors selected for the trial had to indicate an ability to impose the death penalty if justified. After three weeks of questioning, a jury was finally impaneled and sworn. Judge Canova set the next court date for January 2010.
The trial began at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, January 20, 2010, in King County Superior Court before Judge Canova. In his opening statement, Prosecutor O'Toole introduced the Milkin family to the jurors, saying their only mistake was living across the street from Schierman. He went on to describe how the defendant, armed with gloves, a flashlight, two knives and a hatchet, broke into the Milkin home in the early morning hours of Monday, July 17, 2006, and slaughtered two young women and two children. Later, he obtained a container of gasoline, doused the interior of the house and set it on fire. Crime-scene investigators recovered DNA samples from several items within the house which proved to be Schierman's. In addition, traces of the victim's blood was found on Schierman's shoes and on the neck chain he was wearing. O'Toole asked the jury to find the defendant guilty of four counts of aggravated first-degree murder for which the penalty is death or, alternatively, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The fact that Schierman had confessed to torching the Milkin house with the four dead victims inside, wasn't mentioned. The defense chose not to give an opening statement.
The trial lasted for 11 weeks and coverage by the media was minimal, mostly repeating the basic facts of the case. On Tuesday morning, March 16, 2010, after nearly two months of testimony, including Schierman's taped confession to the police, the state rested its case. Once again, defense attorneys James Conroy and Peter Connick opted not to give an opening statement and began presenting their case by calling the first witness. The defense relied heavily on expert testimony from two specialists in addiction, Dr. Andrew Saxon, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and Dr. Mark McClung, a psychiatrist, to support the theory Schierman suffered an alcohol-induced blackout and had no memory of the events. Dr. Barry K. Logan, former director of Washington State Patrol Crime and Toxicology Laboratory, estimated Schierman had consumed approximately one liter of vodka in the hours preceding the slaughter and likely had a blood-alcohol content more than four time Washington's legal intoxication limit of 0.08 percent. The defense rested its case on Monday April 5, 2010, without Schierman taking the witness stand.
In closing arguments, given on Thursday, April 8, Prosecutor O'Toole argued the murders were clearly premeditated and aggravated, making him eligible for the death penalty. Schierman arrived at the Milkin residence armed and intending to kill. He broke into the house in the middle of the night, knowing there was only two young women and two children to oppose him. After butchering everyone inside, the defendant nonchalantly cleaned himself in their shower, donned clean clothes and burned down the house. Voluntary intoxication, inducing an alleged blackout, is not a legal defense for criminal conduct.
Defense Attorney Conroy didn't dispute evidence that Schierman had been in the house the night the Milkins and Botvina were killed or that he later committed the arson, but the evidence suggested that someone else may have committed the murders. Ironically, the fire likely destroyed evidence that could have cleared him of the crimes. Conroy argued that his client either did not kill the four victims or was too intoxicated to create the intent necessary for a conviction of aggravated first-degree murder.
Verdict and Sentencing
On Thursday, April 8, 2010, after a grueling 11-week trial, with testimony from 67 state and 18 defense witnesses, the case was finally concluded. The following day the case was delivered to the jury which deliberated for nine hours before reaching a verdict. On Monday morning, April 12, Judge Canova announced to the courtroom they had reached a decision. The court clerk was then asked to read the verdict -- the defendant, Conner Schierman, had been found guilty of four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson. The jurors weren't dismissed, however, because they still had to decide his fate -- life in prison or death.
On Monday, April 19, 2010, Judge Canova reconvened the court for the special "penalty phase" of the trial. After another round of opening statements, the prosecution presented testimony from only four members of the Milkin/Botvina families, describing various aspects of the victim's lives, including a memorial movie.
The goal of Schierman's defense team was to present mitigating circumstances and personalize him for the jury by laying out his entire life through testimony from his family, friends, teachers, former employers. and treatment counselors. According to Attorney Conroy, his client had a troubled past including childhood abuse and exposure to domestic violence, which led to his alcoholism and drug abuse. The defense presented testimony from more than 30 witnesses, concluding with Conner Schierman, who took the stand to deliver an emotional 25-minute statement. He apologized to the victim's families for their loss, but at no time did he admit responsibility for the four murders. Schierman did, however, admit to the arson that destroyed the Milkin residence, ostensibly to destroy evidence linking him to the crime. Tearfully, he said to the jurors: "I may not have the right to ask anything of you, but I'm asking for mercy. If not for me, then for those who love me" ("Weeping Schierman Pleads for Leniency").
The two-week trial to determine Schierman's fate, life imprisonment or death, concluded on Monday, May 3, 2010. The case was delivered to the jury that afternoon, following closing arguments and instructions from Judge Canova. On Wednesday, May 5, after a day and a half of deliberations, the jury returned a "special finding" verdict that Schierman be executed for his crimes. Defense Attorney Conroy immediately notified the court of his intention to appeal the verdict to the Washington State Supreme Court.
On Thursday, May 27, 2010, Judge Canova officially sentenced Schierman to be executed. In a brief statement before the court, Schierman, maintaining his innocence, refused to apologize the families of the victims, claiming he suffered an alcohol-related blackout and had no memory of the events. He then took issue with the death penalty, suggesting his execution wouldn't be justice, but vengeance and tantamount to murder. Judge Canova pronounced "the defendant shall be and hereby is sentenced to death," ordered Schierman be removed to the Washington State Penitentiary to await execution, and then brought down his gavel ending the session.
No More Executions
Before Schierman, the last person sentenced to death by a King County Superior Court jury was Cal Coburn Brown, who was convicted on December 10, 1993, of the murder of 21-year-old Holly Washa of Burien near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on May 24, 1991. Brown, age 52, became the 78th and last prisoner to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary. He died by lethal injection on Friday, September 10, 2010.
In 2014, Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) announced that he was suspending application of the death penalty in Washington during his time in office. That action did not preclude legal proceedings seeking the penalty (to potentially be carried out after Inslee left office), and on April 12, 2018, a very divided Washington State Supreme Court upheld Schierman's conviction and his death sentence. However, six months later the nine members of the state supreme court ruled unanimously in a different case that Washington's "death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner" (State v. Gregory). As a result of that decision, Schierman's sentence and those of the seven other men then on Washington's death row were converted from death to life in prison without possibility of parole.