Washington court reinstates guilty verdicts in 1987 killings of couple

Dec 26, 2022, 8:43 AM
Gavel (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated two aggravated murder convictions for a man in the 1987 killings of a young Canadian couple.

The high court unanimously rejected the defense’s arguments that William Talbott II should be granted a new trial due to one juror’s alleged bias, concluding that defense attorneys could have dismissed the juror ahead of the trial but opted not to, The Daily Herald reported.

Detectives arrested Talbott, 59, in 2018 after using the then-novel method of forensic genealogy to connect him to the slayings of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and Jay Cook, 20. A Snohomish County jury convicted him of the killings in 2019, sentencing him to life in prison, but an appeals court overturned that conviction last year due to one juror’s perceived bias.

Snohomish County prosecutors then appealed that ruling to the state’s highest court.

Van Cuylenborg and Cook disappeared in November 1987 after leaving their home near Victoria, British Columbia, for an overnight trip to Seattle. Their bodies were found in separate locations in northwestern Washington about a week later.

Investigators preserved DNA evidence recovered from Van Cuylenborg’s body and pants. Authorities used genetic genealogy in 2018 to identify the suspect as Talbott, who was 24 at the time of the killings and lived near where Cook’s body was discovered.

Defense attorneys have never challenged the forensic genealogy. The appeal hinged on the seating of juror No. 40.

Under questioning in jury selection, the woman expressed doubts about her ability to be impartial. Still, she said she would try to be fair and said she was a “fact-based person.”

Talbott’s defense attorneys did not use their option to excuse her.

Chief Justice Steven González noted during September oral arguments that the juror hadn’t made a statement that showed unquestionable bias or a blatant conflict of interest.

“We reaffirm that if a party allows a juror to be seated and does not exhaust their peremptory challenges, then they cannot appeal on the basis that the juror should have been excused for cause,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in the 9-0 decision.

Talbott has remained in custody since he was arrested four years ago. If the verdicts had not been reinstated, he would have faced another trial. He has been in custody at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The case is next expected to return to the state Court of Appeals to address other legal questions raised by the defendant. Talbott’s attorneys also have made arguments about “insufficient evidence,” the “inadequacy of the police investigation” and a series of other alleged missteps at trial, but those were not weighed in the state Court of Appeals’ first ruling.

Talbott has maintained his innocence.


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Washington court reinstates guilty verdicts in 1987 killings of couple