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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 5, 2010

Life term sought for 'Ewa teen

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Karen Ertell

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Vernon Bartley

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Prosecutors want Vernon Bartley, 17, locked up until he dies in prison for murdering his 'Ewa Beach neighbor, Karen Ertell, in May 2008.

Bartley was found guilty yesterday of lying in wait for Ertell, 51, in the carport of her home and strangling her to death in a choke hold. He had just turned 15 at the time of the crime.

"Karen Ertell did nothing wrong, did nothing to deserve being degraded, mistreated, disrespected and ultimately executed," first deputy prosecutor Douglas Chin told Circuit Judge Virginia Crandall in his closing argument.

He said Bartley murdered Ertell because she had been subpoenaed to testify against him in a burglary case.

"He went over to her house, he waited for her, he strangled her, he violated her," Chin said. "He cleaned up the evidence, he took her possessions and then he went off and celebrated."

When Bartley was caught by police that night joy riding with his friends in Ertell's car, "he did not show an ounce of remorse," according to the prosecutor.

Defense lawyer Jeffrey Hawk said that when the crime occurred, Bartley was an immature child who had "barely crossed the threshold of 15 years old" that made him eligible to be tried as an adult.

"He was a child; he was not a monster," Hawk told the judge.

"There was no master plan to go over there and kill Karen. This was not a murder, this was an accidental killing. Vernon Bartley did not mean to kill Karen in her garage. He just choked her for too long."

Crandall, who presided over the nonjury trial, called a 15-minute recess after final arguments were completed.

Attorneys and court observers believed the judge would then return and hear arguments on a pending motion to revoke Bartley's bail. The recess stretched to 45 minutes, then Crandall returned and surprised all by delivering her verdict.

"There was overwhelming evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt that you knowingly and intentionally caused the death of Karen Ertell," Crandall told Bartley, who stood beside Hawk with his head bowed.

"You choked her from behind. There was a break in the bone in the neck. There were multiple injuries," she said.

"The court does find that you committed murder in the second degree."

However, the judge acquitted Bartley of second-degree rape, ruling the prosecution did not prove Ertell was alive when the sexual assault occurred, a necessary element of the charge.

Crandall also acquitted Bartley of robbery but convicted him of theft, burglary, fraud and computer crimes.

Sentencing is set for May 3.

"We weren't expecting a verdict today," Hawk said outside the courtroom. "We're happy that the judge found Vernon not guilty of sexual assault and not guilty of robbery.

"It's always been our position that Vernon did not intend to kill Karen Ertell, that this was an accidental thing, that he choked her to get the car keys away from her and choked her for too long."

Prosecutor Chin said he was "very satisfied with what happened today."

"It's been almost three years since Karen Ertell passed away, since she was murdered by Vernon Bartley," he said. "If there's any group of people that really have been waiting for a result on this, it's been Karen Ertell's family and friends, and we know that they're going to be very pleased with the result."

Chin said his office will seek an "extended sentence" for Bartley beyond the normal maximum term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for second-degree murder.

Under a new state law, motions for extended sentencing must be argued before a jury. The Bartley case was a nonjury trial, meaning a jury would have to be empaneled to decide whether his sentence should be increased to life without parole.

Such a proceeding hasn't occurred since the new law was passed in 2007.

Prosecutor Peter Carlisle yesterday dropped plans to seek an extended sentence in the nonjury case of convicted child killer Matthew Higa. He said he wanted to avoid potential problems with witness testimony in the case.