Donnie Earl Asher Jr. was sentenced to life in prison Thursday afternoon, with no possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to one count of aggravated murder in the death of his 4-year-old stepson.
>Asher remains silent throughout sentencing proceedings
Asher was dressed in an orange Jefferson County Jail inmate's uniform and he was shackled at the wrists and ankles. He drooped his head as he waited for Circuit Court Judge Gary Thompson to arrive.
In a case that has gained notoriety in Crook County and around central Oregon, Asher beat Muldrow to death on July 31, 2006.
Family members of Muldrow addressed Asher in prepared testimony, after a warning provided by Thompson about proper behavior in the court.
The rest of the counts were dismissed in a plea agreement between Asher's attorneys and the prosecution.
"Before we proceed, I'd like to talk with the people in the courtroom about the procedure and the demeanor that is expected of them," Thompson said, adding that Muldrow's family had the right to make a statement, as did Asher. Thompson compared the situation to being in church for a service.
"But you need to understand that this is sort of like a sermon," Judge Thompson said, adding that the "sermon" was about to be delivered. He cautioned everyone in the court to be quiet and listen as the proceedings continued, and that if they did not, they could be held in contempt of court.
Muldrow's mother, Jeanna Matson, was among those who spoke.
"The loss of my son has been a devastating impact on my life," she said, crying. "Donnie Asher, how could you live with yourself? I will never get to hold my baby again."
She added that she would never get to see him graduate from high school.
"I sat in the hospital for two days," Matson said. "Do you even have an inkling of what I am talking about? The doctor told me my son was gone. I live those words over and over and over."
Then she paused.
"And this is a picture of my son, my baby boy that was taken away from me," Matson said, holding up a photograph.
James Herrera, the boy's father, testified by phone and was the first family member to speak, saying "someone who was very special to me and my family was taken away."
"This is very hard for me to be here," Herrera said. "I just hope that this person knows the pain that his actions have caused, and I just hope somewhere down the line he can find God."
Sheri Vasquez was Muldrow's paternal grandmother.
"Our lives have changed since July 31, 2006," Vasquez said. "I speak for everyone who loved him. We will never get to see Nick run and jump and climb trees."
She also addressed Asher, who listened quietly.
"No matter what they give you here today, it will never be enough," Vasquez said of the sentence. "How could you do something so evil? I just can't understand. What were you thinking? Did you just snap or were you aware?"
She said the next day, when Asher became aware of what had happened, she asked, "were you sorry? Did you cry?"
"May God take care of you Nick. We love you," Vasquez said.
Leslie Matson, Muldrow's maternal great-grandmother, also spoke.
"I would like to have him look at my family," she said of Asher. "You deserve to suffer and die as he did and I have no doubt that you will."
In comments before Judge Thompson, Asher's attorneys Mark Rader of Ontario and Geoffrey Gokey spoke. Gokey said Asher had been using a lot of drugs and alcohol before Muldrow's death and that "because of his inability to recall everything, that is why we are recommending the Alford plea."
This plea is taken from the United States vs. Alford case, which Crook County District Attorney Gary Williams explained in an interview after Thursday's sentencing.
"He entered a plea of guilty, but in a normal plea of guilty, the judge would say, 'Mr. Defendant, what makes you guilty of this crime?'," Williams said. "In an Alford guilty plea, the defendant either can't answer the judge's question or is unwilling to answer the judge's questions, due to lack of memory of the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime. An Alford plea allows a defendant to enter a guilty plea without the defendant explaining what he did to commit the crime."
"The defendant was drinking alcohol the day he beat the victim," Williams said. "We know that. He now claims that he was using drugs prior to July 31, 2006, and possibly using drugs that day as well. And because of his drug and alcohol use, he claimed that he did not recall everything that he did at the time when the victim was killed."
Repeatedly, Thompson asked Asher if he understood the plea agreement and that being found guilty of the second count ranges in punishment from life in prison to a death sentence.
"Do you understand that?" Thompson asked.
"Yes," Asher said softly. Additionally, he was advised that under the Alford plea, he is giving up his right to a trial.
Rader said Muldrow was left in Asher's care at 2 p.m. on July 31. Rader said Asher brought Muldrow back to Jeanna Matson five hours later.
"And Nicolas was unconscious at the time that Asher brought him back to Ms. Matson," Rader said.
"He is taking responsibility by his plea," Gokey said. "Mr. Asher has to start off with his life and this is the first day of the rest of his life."
Later, Thompson gave Asher the opportunity to make a statement to the court, but Rader said Asher had declined to do so.
As the audience listened in rapt attention, Thompson made some final observations.
"First of all, I know that I could not put myself in the shoes of the parents of this young man who passed away," the judge said. "But I think I can understand the miracle of life."
Thompson said it took seven years for him and his wife to have their first child and they had other children after that.
"I have close friends in town whose children have predeceased (them), and I have seen them. And I have seen their pain and I see that today," Thompson said.
Williams spoke after the Thursday session about the aftermath of the case.
"I believe the sentence was appropriate, considering the facts of the case and the background of the defendant," Williams said. "It's as bad a case of child abuse as anyone will ever see. It's always tragic when a child dies in our community, and it's even worse when a young, vulnerable child is beat to death by someone the child trusts - in this case a stepfather. This case was horrific and just makes me sick. He deserves to die in prison."
In all, about 75 people attended the plea change and sentencing hearing. Crook County Sheriff's Office deputies were using metal detectors, scanning those who entered the circuit court room to check for weapons. Additionally, officers looked through purses and bags for anything that could be used as a weapon. Additionally, those going up to the courtroom were asked to use the elevator instead of the staircase for security purposes.
Asher, who had previously been charged with one count of murder and one count of manslaughter, was arraigned in Crook County Circuit Court on Jan. 19, on 12 new charges, including six counts of aggravated murder, four counts of aggravated felony murder and two counts of aggravated murder by abuse. All 12 counts represented alternative theories on the death of Muldrow. The Asher family had moved from Madras to Prineville several weeks before Muldrow's death.
After the sentencing, court observers walked out after a brief intermission.
"Judge Thompson?" asked R.E. Bangle of Prineville, addressing Thompson outside the courtroom. Bangle was simply an observer and was not related to Muldrow. "You did a good job."