By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Whether Toledo Elementary School Principal Ron Reynolds and his sons will be required to appear and give testimony at next month’s coroner’s inquest into Ronda Reynolds 1998 death remains an open question.
Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod has indicated he won’t challenge the written motions each has made invoking their fifth amendment rights not to incriminate themselves.
They’ve asked that their subpoenas be quashed so they don’t have to attend the inquest, according to McLeod. The attorney representing Ronda Reynolds’ mother, Barb Thompson, has taken issue with the coroner’s position on the matter.
“If they say I’d like to plead the fifth, I’m certainly going to honor that,” McLeod told news reporters on Friday.
McLeod indicated the public, his inquest jury and members of the news media probably shouldn’t expect to see or hear the four at the inquest.
Not so fast, attorney Royce Ferguson said in essence with his filing over the weekend. There are several reasons the Reynolds family ought to and can be compelled to take the stand at the inquest, according to Ferguson.
McLeod, elected last November as the first new Lewis County coroner in decades, is moving through ambiguously charted territory as he convenes the October coroner’s inquest.
He said on Friday he thinks the last one held in the county was in 1961, but that’s all he knows about it, he said.
Coroner’s inquests in Washington state are rare, and McLeod, with assistance from Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor David Fine, has created and adopted a set of rules to guide the proceedings.
One of McLeod’s first acts after he took office in January was to change the death certificate from suicide to undetermined in the case of the former trooper whose death has been the subject of near continuous controversy for almost 13 years.
Reynolds, 33, was found with a bullet in her head and covered by a turned-on electric blanket on the floor of a closet in the Toledo home she shared with her husband of less than a year, Ron Reynolds. He and his three sons – then 18, 17 and 10 – were present when the first sheriff’s deputy arrived the morning of Dec. 16, 1998.
Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod
McLeod says he would like a final resolution on the death.
While a judicial review, with an advisory panel of jurors, was held two years ago seeking answers about the manner of Ronda Reynolds’ death, the coroner’s inquest is an entirely different kind of proceeding and more details can be expected to be aired during the inquest.
For the judicial review, then-Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson and his attorney chose to not call any witnesses to defend Wilson’s reasoning for choosing suicide. The panel, the judge and the audience heard days of testimony from the opposite side, Thompson’s witnesses who offered many reasons to show it was likely not a suicide. Even Thompson’s lawyer chose not to call upon those who presumably believed it to be suicide.
For the coroner’s inquest, a big difference is the elected coroner says he is striving to call upon all individuals who have first-hand or expert information about the death, and he has subpoena power.
Under McLeod’s inquest rules, Thompson as the decedent’s mother is deemed one of several “persons especially interested in the matter”. As such, Thompson is allowed by McLeod’s rules to submit a “brief” in opposition to the motions requesting quashing of the subpoenas.
Her lawyer’s brief claims Ron, David, Jonathan and Joshua Reynolds do not have the right under the terms of the subpoenas to refuse to appear at the coroner’s inquest.
Since the corner’s inquest is not a criminal proceeding, there is no prejudice to the witnesses and they should not be excused from appearing, even if they invoke the privilege against self-incrimination in front of the jurors, Ferguson writes.
Further, attorney Ferguson claims, whether they may properly invoke the privilege must be determined by an inquiry; Ferguson suggests, for example, “… not all of the Reynolds witnesses are suspects of homicide (for which there is no statute of limitations), but they may only be suspects of having rendered criminal assistance or committed perjury (crimes for which the statute of limitations has run) and so there is no jeopardy upon which to base the exercise of the privilege.”
McLeod’s rules say his decisions on subpoena quash requests will “ordinarily” be made without oral argument; he said on Friday he expects to decide by Sept. 27.
Thompson’s lawyer Ferguson also notes in his filing he objects to leaving suicide on the table as one of the choices the inquest jury may choose from. His reasoning is the 2009 judicial review already concluded the label of suicide was incorrect, arbitrary and capricious.
Ferguson suggests not enforcing the subpoenas or keeping suicide as an option could result in another judicial review proceeding.
McLeod last month released a list of 36 witnesses he expects for the inquest, and on Friday said he sent out two more subpoenas, to Dr. John Demakas and Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds.
There’s one witness he wouldn’t name to whom he’s sent subpoenas to four addresses and still can’t locate, he said.
McLeod, when he held a press conference on Friday at the Lewis County Law and Justice Center, said he’s been asked if he intends to call former Lewis County Sheriff John McCroskey and former Lewis County Coroner Wilson to testify.
He won’t, McLeod said, as neither man was at the scene, and what they know is only what others told them or is their opinion.
The coroner’s inquest is set to begin on Oct. 10, and could last a week or could go on for six weeks, McLeod said.
“This will take as long as it takes,” he said.
McLeod said the jurors determination will be the verdict, as long as it doesn’t seem unreasonable to him.
It will be held in a Lewis County District Court room and begin at 9 a.m. each week day, according to his schedule. However, today he told the Lewis County board of commissioners he’s planning for only half days during the second week.
The courtroom is expected to have seating for 60 persons. Twenty are reserved for the news media and another 20 will be available to the public on a first come, first served basis each day.
Members of the public who want a seating pass may line up outside the courthouse no earlier than 6 a.m. each day, according to the coroner.
How long those lines will be can only be imagined: When true crime writer Ann Rule traveled to Centralia College in November to speak about and sign her book on the controversial death, more than 500 individuals filled the auditorium, and more were turned away.
McLeod expects a courtroom audio tape of the proceedings to be made and a transcript from it will be placed in a file available to the public.
On Friday, he estimated the cost of the coroners inquest to be somewhere around $35,000.
See the rules governing the procedures for McLeod’s coroner’s inquest, here
Read most recent news story, “Breaking news: Witnesses subpoenaed for Reynolds’ coroner’s inquest” from Wednesday August 31, 2011, here
For more background, read “Jury finds coroner erred in ruling former trooper’s death a suicide”, here