Portland man too drunk to 'intentionally' kill wife gets 12 years in prison

By Aimee Green | The Oregonian | August 25, 2016

A North Portland man who killed his wife with a single bullet to her neck was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison due to a defense that is rarely found to be successful: He was too drunk at the time to comprehend what he was doing.

John Grant Coffey, 58, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.26 percent -- more than three times the legal limit for driving -- when he fatally shot Samantha Coffey, 42, on April 25, 2015.

He was charged with murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with a 25-year minimum. To prove murder under Oregon law, prosecutors would have had to prove that Coffey "intentionally" killed his wife -- something that would require proof that he was of coherent mind at the time.

As part of extensive negotiations, Coffey pleaded guilty in July to first-degree manslaughter -- meaning that he killed his wife "recklessly" and "under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life."

During Thursday's sentencing hearing, Coffey read a four-page, handwritten apology.

"I can't even begin to express and explain how sorry I am in what I've done," Coffey said, his voice wavering. "...There is no one else to blame for this tragedy but myself: John Coffey. I never intended for any of this to happen."

Prosecutor Amber Kinney said in agreeing to the plea deal, her office took into account a December 2015 ruling by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Gregory Silver. The judge found that the evidence was lacking for an "intentional" murder case.

One key piece of evidence: The 911 call of Coffey reporting he'd shot his wife. In the recording, which defense attorney Stephen Houze played in court, Coffey's speech is slurred and he seemingly had trouble comprehending at least one of the dispatcher's questions.

John Coffey had been arrested multiple times over the course of the couple's 15-year marriage for violence in their relationship, as well as in past relationships stretching back to the 1970s. He had never been convicted of any crimes.

The couple's relationship was rocky at the time of the shooting. Samantha Coffey's adult daughter told police that her mother had talked of divorce.

Like her husband, Samantha Coffey had a blood-alcohol level of 0.26 percent at the time of the shooting.

John Coffey told police that he'd grabbed his father's antique gun in an attempt to scare his wife, and he wasn't familiar with how it worked when the gun went off. A defense expert who examined the gun testified that it had a defective spring that could lead to an accidental discharge.

John Coffey told police he didn't know the gun was loaded.

Coffey's case is reminiscent of that of John Coleman Hardaway, who in 2013 was sentenced to eight years in prison for the beating death of his girlfriend. Lawyers for the Gresham man, who had faced a possible death sentence, successfully argued that Hardaway couldn't have "intentionally" killed because his blood-alcohol level was 0.30 percent.

Although Samantha Coffey's two adult children didn't attend Thursday's sentencing hearing, John Coffey apologized to them -- and especially to his wife's granddaughter. She was 1 year old at the time of the killing.

John Coffey said he knows she will grow up without her loving grandmother doting on her. "This is so overwhelming at times, I can't stand it," he said.

Samantha Coffey's daughter and granddaughter lived in the Coffeys' apartment in the 7900 block of North Kerby Avenue. They weren't at the home at the time of the fatal shooting.

John Coffey also apologized to the students of Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland, where Samantha Coffey had worked in the lunchroom. Known as "Ms. Samantha" or just "Sam," she was loved by students, staff said.

"I will ...go to prison and do my time," John Coffey said. "But the sentence I serve to myself will never end, and it shouldn't. I will live the rest of my life knowing what I have done."