Judge sets bail for Portland man accused of killing wife, finding state didn't prove death intentional

By Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian | December 22, 2015

There's no dispute John Coffey shot and killed his wife of 15 years, with a single blast to her neck in the back bedroom of their North Portland apartment in late April.

But his lawyer, Stephen Houze, argued the killing was not intentional.

Coffey was extremely drunk, estimated to have a blood-alcohol content more than three times the legal limit when he called 911. He also was unfamiliar with his father's heirloom, a German-made Walther P38 9mm handgun he had taken out simply to scare Samantha A. Coffey, 42, on April 25, Houze argued during a three-and-a-half day bail hearing this month.

Further, the gun was defective, a defense firearms expert testified.

Houze urged a judge to set a bail amount for Coffey, arguing that what Coffey did amounted to a lesser charge of manslaughter or criminal negligent homicide, alleging he recklessly or accidentally caused his wife's death.

"When you listen to the 911 call, it is beyond dispute we're listening to a man who is emotionally distraught and is so intoxicated he can't even give his phone number,'' Houze said. "This was not a person who was intending to cause the death of another human being.''

But prosecutor Amber Kinney countered that the murder case is clear cut: Coffey called 911 and told a dispatcher, "I just shot my wife.'' Though he was intoxicated, he was cooperative and followed police instructions to walk out of his apartment with his shirt off, his pants pockets pulled out and his hands in the air.

She argued that Coffey drank after the killing and hesitated calling police right away. Regardless, as a chronic alcoholic, Coffey could function at a high rate of intoxication, Kinney added.

Evidence indicates Coffey shot his wife from a fairly close range, between 6 and 30 inches away, state medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson testified. He was the only one who was in the apartment at the time and had access to the gun, which was loaded, Kinney told the court. Coffey got the gun, removed it from its holster, walked up to his wife and pulled the trigger, Kinney said.

"By pointing a firearm at another person inches from her face, and pulling that trigger - there is intent to kill,'' Kinney argued.

In a rare move, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Gregory F. Silver ruled Tuesday afternoon that the state did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Coffey, 57, intended to kill his wife, and Silver set bail at $500,000, pending a release plan drafted by county Close Street Supervision deputies.

A third party must post 10 percent of the bail to allow for Coffey's release pending trial, and if that occurs, Coffey would have to wear an alcohol monitoring bracelet and have no contact with the victim's family or any witnesses.

"I certainly find it's possible he intended to kill Mrs. Coffey, but I also find it's possible he did not,'' the judge said, noting his ruling was based on the testimony presented. He found that Coffey sounded very intoxicated and distressed during his 911 call.

"You have to understand your drinking days are behind you,'' the judge told Coffey. "A lot is going to be on you, Mr. Coffey, to do the right things, to be able to remain out of custody.''

Both sides agreed that the setting of bail in a murder case is unusual. Kinney said the state does not intend to reduce the murder charge.

What also stands out is that the judge set a bail that the defendant could actually post, Lewis & Clark law Professor Tung Yin said.

Samantha Coffey, 42, and her husband, John Grant Coffey, 57, lived on the first floor, right side, of this apartment building in the 7900 block of North Kerby Avenue. Samantha Coffey was fatally shot inside the apartment on April 25, 2015, police said.

Samantha Coffey bled to death from the wound. The bullet entered her neck below her chin and exited out the right side of her upper back and lodged in the bedroom wall, according to police and the state medical examiner.

"He was intoxicated, but he was not blotto drunk,'' testified Portland police homicide Detective Erik Kammerer, of her husband. "He was able to track conversations.''

Yet if so, Houze questioned Kammerer why he waited more than six hours before interviewing Coffey, who was taken into custody by police shortly after he called 911 at 5:59 p.m.

On Coffey's 911 call, which was played in court, he was slurring his words, unable to provide a coherent phone number and gave his name when the dispatcher asked what his apartment complex was called.

Houze suggested that the detective delayed interviewing Coffey for hours because it was clear he was too drunk to respond to his questioning earlier, and such an interview would have looked afoul in court.

"That is absolutely not true,'' Kammerer responded. The detective said he wanted to learn what the evidence was inside the apartment before he questioned Coffey.

"You let him sober up,'' Houze persisted.

Houze continued to question why Kammerer left out important information during his direct testimony under questioning from the prosecutor.

"Mr. Coffey told you he did not intend to kill his wife. In fact, he told you that many times,'' Houze said. "You didn't mention that in your direct exam, though he told you that again and again and again.''

According to Samantha Coffey's adult daughter who lived with the couple, Samantha Coffey had left the apartment the night before to go to a bar without her husband and returned about 2 or 3 a.m. The daughter told police her mother had a boyfriend at the bar and talked about seeking a divorce, Kammerer testified.

Houze countered there was no evidence John Coffey was aware of another man in his wife's life.

Samantha Coffey continued drinking from that morning until evening, and also had methamphetamine and a trace of morphine in her system at the time of her death, according to toxicology results.

"It's kind of a beer-for-beer drinking duo,'' Houze said.

John Coffey told police he had at least eight beers that day and had just finished watching a hockey game on TV in the living room. He recalled that his wife had nagged him about getting a haircut and trimming his beard before a scheduled visit with his mom, but he didn't remember exactly what she said that prompted him to get the gun. He told police that he thought the gun wasn't loaded and didn't remember loading it, Kammerer testified.

After he was taken into custody and placed in the back of a patrol car, Coffey asked an officer if his wife was dead. The officer told him that she was. He showed no emotion, Kammerer testified.

The couple had marked their 15th wedding anniversary on April 7, just over two weeks before the shooting. He had bought her a card with a necklace, and signed, "I love you Samantha, Always and Forever, John.'' Coffey's lawyer said the card and jewelry gift was Coffey's effort to reconcile and improve their relationship.

John Coffey's blood-alcohol level was estimated to be .26 percent around the time of the shooting, more than three times the legal limit for driving. He argued that the defendant likely drank 17 to 19 cans of beer to have reached such a high alcohol content in his blood.

After Samantha Coffey collapsed from the gunshot wound, John Coffey "tried to save his wife. He got a towel to try to stop the bleeding ... what person callously decides to murder their spouse, then tries to save her?'' Houze questioned in his closing argument.

Defense expert Robert Haphey took apart the gun used in the killing and found it held a defective spring that could result in an accidental discharge, he testified. He said the gun was considered a relic, manufactured in 1944. Under the glare of a courtroom lamp, he took the gun apart and pointed out the defective part as the judge, prosecutor and a state forensic firearms examiner huddled around him.

State police forensic firearms examiner Leland P. Samuelson had testified that the gun used was operable, having fired it multiple times. When asked by the defense why he didn't take the gun apart to examine it, Samuelson said, "We want to test fire a gun as we received it.'' He said that the spring would not affect the firing of the gun or its trigger pull.