Victim: Tecle Ghebremichale, 41
Age at time of murder: 14
Crime location: Seattle
Crime date: May 19, 1992
Crimes: Murder, attempted murder, & witness retaliation
Murder method: Gunshot
Murder motivation: Retaliation for testifying against his brother
Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP) later reduced to 25 years to life
Incarceration status: Released
This story started several months before the actual murder when Bourgeois’s 16-year-old brother entered Tecle’s store and shot and wounded him and another co-owner. Tecle, who was from Eritrea and who co-owned the store, testified against his attacker in an assault trial in juvenile court. Bourgeois decided to retaliate against Tecle for testifying against his brother. He invaded the store and shot Tecle, along with co-owner Efram Isak. Efram survived. Tecle did not.
Bourgeois was sentenced to LWOP but later had his sentence reduced to 25 years to life. He has become an activist.
On May 19, 1992, Bourgeois killed Tecle Ghebremichale, 41, who had earlier testified against Bourgeois’ older brother in an assault trial in juvenile court. Ghebremichale was still wearing the colostomy bag from the surgery he needed from being shot by Bourgeois’ brother, according to a news account in The Seattle Times.
After hearing evidence about the crime and about Bourgeois’ lifestyle and criminal history, a juvenile-court judge declined to have him tried as a juvenile. Had he been tried and convicted in juvenile court, Bourgeois could have been imprisoned only until he was 21.
Bourgeois spoke about the victim, Ghebremichale, in court Friday.
“My mom came here as an immigrant from East Africa to work,” he said. “Now I am here today because I shot and killed a man from East Africa. I know this is a tragedy of my own making.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in an interview earlier this week that Bourgeois was tried as an adult because the murder of a witness is considered an attack on the heart of the legal system.
“It was clear retaliation,” Satterberg said. “It’s an assault on the justice system that makes people scared to testify. And if witnesses don’t feel that they are protected, the whole system crumbles.”
The prosecutor’s office has been unable to reach the family of Ghebremichale. Satterberg said his relatives “appeared to have moved back to Africa after such a horrible tragedy happened here.”
May 21, 1992
About 4 p.m. Tuesday, Tecle Ghebremichale shook the hand of a deputy prosecutor for helping convict the 16-year-old youth who burst into Ghebremichale’s store and shot him in January.
Then the shopkeeper of the High Point Market at 3401 S.W. Graham St. went off to work, as he did almost every night. Four hours later, he was dead.
Ghebremichale was shot again in the torso, from the market’s doorway. One of his business partners, shot in the ankle as he ducked behind the counter, had been standing beside him.
No one has been arrested in the latest shooting, but acquaintances and family members of the victim believe the motive was revenge.
The store’s three owners all came to the United States from the northern Ethiopian province of Eritrea. They bought the market in February 1990.
Ghebremichale, 44, had lived in Seattle 11 years. He is survived by a wife and three children, a friend said. Police refused to release the name of the 40-year-old partner shot Tuesday, who was in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center.
Residents of the High Point neighborhood say gang members resented the shop owners not just for testifying in the first shooting case, but for cooperating with police to crack down on drug dealing around the store.
Neighbors said the owners also were resented for being “foreigners” doing well in a neighborhood that wasn’t.
Nothing was taken from the market in either shooting.
“Not many people try to deal with all the stuff that goes on around here,” said one neighbor, Claudia Welcher. “These people did try, and I think that’s why one lost his life.”
The 16-year-old in the Jan. 5 shooting, who has a history of violent offenses, was in the King County Youth Services Center during the Tuesday-night attack. He is to be sentenced June 3 in Juvenile Court, and faces a sentence of four to nearly five years on two counts of first-degree assault.
Prosecutors say shortly before the January shooting, the youth threatened Ghebremichale and co-owner Dagnew Amdemichael by making shooting gestures and saying, “Tonight, boom-boom.”
Less than 15 minutes later, the youth banged on the door and shot both men in the abdomen with a handgun, the store owners testified.
King County Deputy Prosecutor Howard Schneiderman said the victims could have died from their wounds had they not been rushed to the hospital. As they recovered, Amdemichael and Ghebremichale picked the youth out of a photo montage and agreed to testify against him.
Schneiderman, who prosecuted the first shooting case, said neither victim expressed any fear of testifying.
Family members say Amdemichael, 41, of Lynnwood, might have been shot again, too, had he not been at Harborview Tuesday night for scheduled surgery on the injury from the first shooting. “We feel very lucky,” said his daughter.
Volunteers for the High Point branch of Neighborhood House called a community meeting last night to urge residents to band together rather than recoil in fear.
Schneiderman described Seattle’s entire Ethiopian community as being in shock yesterday. He said he had been told many were not working, out of respect for Ghebremichale, and that community members were trying to arrange to fly Ghebremichale’s body back to Eritrea for burial.
“He was pleased when I told him we won,” recalled Schneiderman. “I thanked him; they thanked me . . . It was a nice moment. Then he was dead.”
Supreme Court of Washington,En Banc.
STATE of Washington, Petitioner, v. Jeremiah BOURGEOIS, Respondent.
Decided: November 06, 1997
On May 19, 1992, a lone gunman entered the High Point Market in West Seattle and shot two of the market’s co-owners, Tecle Ghebremichaele and Efram Isak. Ghebremichaele died as a result of the wounds he received in the incident. Isak survived.
Jeremiah Bourgeois, who was then 14 years of age, was subsequently arrested and charged in King County juvenile court with assaulting Isak and murdering Ghebremichaele. When the juvenile court declined to assert jurisdiction over Bourgeois, the State charged Bourgeois in King County Superior Court with first degree assault and aggravated first degree murder. The State alleged as an aggravating factor that Bourgeois shot Ghebremichaele in retaliation for Ghembremichael’s testimony against Bourgeois’s brother at an earlier trial. That trial arose out of a charge against Bourgeois’s brother for the shooting of Ghebremichaele and the third co-owner of the High Point Market, Dagnew Andemichael, at the market on January 5, 1992.
At Bourgeois’s trial, the State called Andemichael as its first witness. The deputy prosecutor asked Andemichael, “[D]o you want to be here today?” Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) at 111. After the trial court rejected defense counsel’s relevancy objection, Andemichael stated that he did not want to be in court and was there only because he had been arrested on a material witness warrant. Andemichael then testified about the incident that led to the charge against Bourgeois’s brother.
The State’s next witness was Efram Isak. Over defense counsel’s objection, the trial court permitted the deputy prosecutor to ask Isak if he had come to court “completely voluntarily.” VRP at 257. Isak stated that he “was arrested and [did not] want to be arrested again the next day.” VRP at 257. He then testified about the May 19 shooting that led to the charges against Bourgeois. He recalled that the person who assaulted him was wearing a “mask,” and he was unable to identify that person.
Frank Rojas, who was in his apartment across the street from the High Point Market at the time of the May 19 shooting, also testified on behalf of the State. In response to a question from a deputy prosecutor, Rojas stated that he did not want to be in court. When asked “why,” Rojas stated, over defense counsel’s objection, “Just fear, worry.” VRP at 474. Rojas went on to say that he was “[f]earful of getting hurt, my family being hurt,” and that he was in court only because he had been arrested on a material witness warrant. VRP at 474. Rojas testified that he had not appeared when served with a subpoena because he “didn’t want to show up. [He] wanted to hide.” VRP at 475.
Rojas then testified about the incident, indicating that on the evening of May 19, he noticed “J.J.” [Bourgeois] walking toward the High Point Market wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. Rojas said that after looking away momentarily, he “glanced up again” and saw someone “with [a] hood over their head and a bandana over their face” walking toward the Market. VRP at 487, 490. According to Rojas, the person wearing the bandana was of the same height, gender, and ethnicity as Bourgeois. Rojas testified that although there was “some doubt in [his] mind, a little bit,” the person wearing the hood and bandana looked like Bourgeois. VRP at 490. He also indicated that any uncertainty he had was a result only of “some things” he later heard in the neighborhood. VRP at 494. Rojas said that after hearing several gunshots, he turned to see the person in the bandana standing in the doorway of the High Point Market with his arm extended, apparently firing a gun.
Rojas testified that when the police arrived at the scene of the shooting, he identified himself as Frank Zamzrla and told them that he “had no idea” who the assailant was. VRP at 517. Rojas indicated further that during this first contact with the police, he selected a picture of someone other than Bourgeois from a photo montage that was shown to him. He also said that it was “possible” he told the officers that Bourgeois’s brother was the assailant. VRP at 550. Rojas indicated that when the police later contacted him, he told them his true name and picked Bourgeois’s picture out of the same photo montage that had been shown to him earlier. Rojas testified that he originally lied about his identity because he “had warrants,” and that he purposely picked the wrong picture when first shown the montage because he was “scared for [his] family and [himself].” VRP at 519, 523.
Debra Steward, who also testified on behalf of the State, stated over defense counsel’s objection that she felt “fearfulness” and “nervousness” about testifying, and that she did not want to “be involved” or “anger anybody by [her] testimony.” VRP at 752. Steward also testified that Bourgeois came to her house and offered to give her and her son $120 “[t]o say that [Bourgeois] was baby-sitting [Steward’s son]” on the evening of the shooting. VRP at 775. According to Steward, Bourgeois had not provided care for her son on the evening of the shooting. Finally, Steward testified that while she was leaving a party approximately a week and a half before trial, someone pushed her to the ground and said, “Don’t do it, Debbie.” VRP at 754. She indicated that the incident made her afraid to testify.
Manuel Parejo, a self-described “snitch” with an extensive history of felony convictions, also testified for the State. He said that prior to Bourgeois’s trial, he was housed in the same section of the King County Jail as Bourgeois. According to Parejo, he and Bourgeois had a conversation in the jail about the incident at the High Point Market. Recounting what he said he learned from Bourgeois, Parejo testified: “One guy in the store had testified on his brother, and he shot the guy several times. Another guy he shot one time.” VRP at 1029. According to Parejo, Bourgeois told him that he “had a white guy that was a witness that was going to lie for him” by saying that Bourgeois was at the witness’s house during the shooting. VRP at 1022.
Randy Browne, a white male, was one of several witnesses who testified for the defense. According to Browne, Bourgeois arrived at Browne’s house between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. on May 19, and remained there until after “about 12:00 or 1:00.” VRP at 1154. Bourgeois did not testify.
One of the trial court’s instructions to the jury stated:
Evidence has been introduced in this case on the subject of the alleged willingness of a witness to testify, including, but not limited to, the alleged fear of the witness. This evidence has been admitted for the limited purpose of assessing the credibility of a witness. You must not consider this evidence for any other purpose.
Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 319.
During his closing argument, the deputy prosecutor stated:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the essence of this case on which you have heard evidence for approximately three weeks can be distilled to just a few words: deadly retaliation and reasonable fear of more of it. If you doubt whether or not that’s an accurate distillation, consider the following: consider the fact that Dagnew Andemichael had to be threatened with a material witness warrant to get him to come here to testify.
VRP at 1322-23. Bourgeois’s counsel objected to this line of argument, contending that it was beyond the scope of the above-quoted jury instruction. The trial court overruled his objection. The deputy prosecutor continued:
Consider as well Efram Isak who had to, in fact, be arrested on a material witness warrant and threatened with remaining in jail before he would testify.
Consider Debra Steward, who was so fearful she did not want to admit in open court that she was fearful because she understood that she had been pushed down recently when leaving a party apparently just one-to-two weeks before she testified.
VRP at 1323. After the trial court granted defense counsel’s request for a continuing objection to this line of argument, the deputy prosecutor told the jury that Frank Rojas “expressed substantial fear about what he had seen and about the idea of testifying” and reminded them that Rojas “ultimately ․ had to be arrested to come in and testify in this matter.” VRP at 1324. The deputy prosecutor also stated:
Who can blame any of these persons for being terrified? They have every motive-and that’s the whole point of this-every motive to come in here and conceal or try to minimize what they saw or what they observed, and, further, not to be as certain as they once were as to everything they had observed.
It is in this context, in the context of credibility, that you must consider the testimony that you have heard in this matter from each of these witnesses.
VRP at 1325. The jury found Bourgeois guilty of aggravated first degree murder and first degree assault.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial court notified counsel for the first time that it had learned, after the verdict had been reached, that during the trial “a young person in the audience [had] point[ed] his finger at Miss Steward [,] when she was on the witness stand testifying about her fear[,] in the manner of holding a gun.” VRP (Apr. 23, 1993) at 47.
Bourgeois moved for a new trial, claiming that the gun gesture and “the court’s lack of response during trial before deliberations was prejudicial and reversible error.” CP at 476. At an evidentiary hearing on the defense motion, the trial court’s bailiff testified that a juror told her of the gun-pointing gesture after the verdict had been read, and that she reported to the judge what she had been told. The bailiff also said that a juror approached her during the trial and told her that a spectator in the courtroom was “glaring” at witnesses. VRP (June 11, 1993) at 5. The bailiff said that she notified the trial court of the juror’s comments about the glaring while the trial was underway. The trial court did not advise counsel of the alleged glaring incident, but did inform them, at sentencing, of the alleged gun-pointing.
A juror also testified at the hearing. He said that he observed two spectators in the court room, both teenage boys, glaring at Debra Steward during her testimony and “kind of staring her down.” VRP (June 11, 1993) at 28. According to the juror, one of these spectators also made a gesture with his fingers as if to form a gun. The juror hypothesized that because the trial judge and counsel for the State and defendant were engaged in a sidebar conference, they did not see the gesture. The juror testified that he told the bailiff of the incident.
Another juror testified at the hearing and indicated that he noticed “people ․ giving dirty looks to someone else” and “an air of intimidation” in the court room. VRP (June 11, 1993) at 20, 19. Although this juror discussed what he had seen with the other juror who testified, he did not recall being told of the gun gesture. The parties stipulated that the remaining jurors did not recall becoming aware of any unusual or inappropriate spectator action prior to rendering their verdict.
The trial court denied Bourgeois’s motion for a new trial. In doing so, it concluded that the juror’s act of mentioning the glaring to the bailiff did not constitute misconduct. It also concluded that the hand-gesturing constituted spectator misconduct and that the juror’s mention of it to other jurors “may [have] constitute[d]” juror misconduct. VRP (June 11, 1993) at 53. Nevertheless, the court concluded that “the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict.” VRP (June 11, 1993) at 64.
Bourgeois appealed the order denying his motion for a new trial 1 to Division One of the Court of Appeals. That court reversed and remanded for a new trial, concluding that the testimony regarding “fear and intimidation felt by State witnesses” served to improperly bolster their credibility before it had been put in issue. State v. Bourgeois, 82 Wash.App. 314, 319, 917 P.2d 1101, review granted, 130 Wash.2d 1008, 928 P.2d 412 (1996). The Court of Appeals concluded that this error, together with the trial court’s failure to notify counsel of the juror’s communication with the bailiff, violated Bourgeois’s right to a fair trial. Bourgeois, 82 Wash.App. at 323-26, 917 P.2d 1101. The State petitioned for review, which we granted.