Last-minute guilty plea for 1 of 4 defendants in Steve Bushaw murder trial

We are at the King County Courthouse, in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Joan DuBuque. What was supposed to be a trial for the 4 people charged in the February 2009 murder of 26-year-old Steve Bushaw is suddenly a trial for 3: Danny O’Neal, one of the two alleged triggermen, pleaded guilty this morning. Prosecutors say he made a deal last Friday while also giving a videotaped statement about how he says it all played out. We’ll have a longer report later; in short, he says — as charged — he and John Nikimbe Sylve (known as “Nicky”) — shot Steve Bushaw, and O’Neal says that the next day, he took apart and threw away the 2 handguns that were used in the shooting. As part of the plea agreement, he is pleading guilty to second-degree murder, with a firearms enhancement, and the state will recommend the lower end of the sentencing range, at least 10 years (though the judge is not bound to honor that), plus 16 months for the firearms enhancement.

The three remaining defendants – Sylve, alleged getaway driver Brandon Chaney, and alleged mastermind Bryce Huber – were in court this afternoon, Chaney and Sylve in street clothes, Huber in a brick-red jail-issue jumpsuit. For the past hour or so, their lawyers talked with the judge, and among themselves, discussing what happens in the wake of the eleventh-hour plea: Court is in recess until at least Wednesday, while the three defendants’ lawyers review forthcoming copies of O’Neal’s new statement; their clients still have the opportunity to enter pleas rather than go to trial, and the lawyers told the judge they’ll make decisions on that by late tomorrow afternoon. Meantime, O’Neal’s sentencing is tentatively set for March 4th. (For backstory on the case, here’s the trial preview published here last night.)

ADDED MONDAY NIGHT: More details from today’s proceedings:

The day in court began with 29-year-old Danny O’Neal’s plea agreement, following the video statement he gave to Detective Cooper last Friday. “If you are called to testify against the co-defendants, you must abide by the truth of” that statement, he was told. And as part of the deal, “the state will recommend the lower range of sentencing, 123 months plus 16 for weapons enhancement.” But they reserved the right to recommend the high end of the standard second-degree-murder range – 220 months, plus the 16 for using a gun. And O’Neal was reminded that a “recommendation does not guarantee that Judge DuBuque will adhere to the lowest recommendation; she will base it on more than the plea document.” It was noted, though, that O’Neal had no prior felony convictions.

His statement, according to what was said in court, included an admission that he shot at Steve Bushaw on February 1st, 2009, with John Nikimbe Sylve as an accomplice, and with advance planning, related to co-defendant Bryce Huber’s belief that Bushaw had been involved in a home-invasion robbery. Once Huber directed them to Bushaw, O’Neal’s statement said, “Nicky” (Sylve) fired two shots, O’Neal fired three. “I knew he could die, but I do not know if it was my bullets that killed him. Next morning I dismantled both handguns and put their pieces into dumpsters.”

O’Neal’s lawyer said his client “decided to plead guilty because he feels it’s the right thing to do, ethically, morally, and factually.”

Then, just before 2 pm, the afternoon session began, with all three remaining defendants present, along with their lawyers – one each for Sylve and Chaney, two for Huber – plus the prosecutor and SPD detective. It was acknowledged that O’Neal’s plea agreement would loom large on how the trial would proceed – if the trial would proceed – and alleged getaway driver Chaney’s lawyer James Roe asked how, and how soon, defense lawyers would be able to see O’Neal’s statement, in writing and on video (1 hour, 15 minutes long, it was noted).

Judge DuBuque suggested perhaps a copy could be obtained so everyone could watch it right then and there in court. Ultimately it was decided that copies would instead be made for the defense teams, and prosecutor James Konat said “it might make sense for me to sit down with the lawyers of the three defendants in efforts to resolve this case before it goes to trial.” He said he “would entertain the notion” of guilty pleas similar to O’Neal’s.

Defense lawyers said they didn’t see how that discussion could take place until they found out exactly what was in O’Neal’s statement.

“Maybe they’ll all choose to say ‘no thanks right now,’ but I do think a little deliberation about this subject would go a long way … it might very well be that we can make great use of it, save ourselves all a lengthy trial, which even with just three defendants, could take months.”

With the judge’s permission, the defense lawyers went off into the jury room to talk for a bit. They worked out a plan to get the discs of the videotaped statement made, and for court to be in recess on Tuesday while the remaining defendants decided whether to change their pleas.

And with that, the day’s proceedings ended. We will check Tuesday afternoon if there is word on any resolution.

4 Replies to "Last-minute guilty plea for 1 of 4 defendants in Steve Bushaw murder trial"

  • BJ January 10, 2011 (2:58 pm)

    At least this is finally moving forward. It’d be nice to see some kind of closure to this tragedy, coming close to two years now after our dear friend Steve was taken from us.

  • Margaret January 10, 2011 (3:29 pm)

    I am as critical as the next person over the actions of the SPD, but in this case this was a terrific piece of police work. Kudos SPD!

  • EEK January 10, 2011 (6:16 pm)

    I feel some relief knowing this is finally moving forward. I’ve known Stevie since he was about 3 years old. He was like my own little brother so this has really hit hard!! I will never understand why people think hurting someone else is ever a solution. Streets or reality! It angers me knowing these LOW Life’s could ever be free. I wish they would spend the rest of their life rotting behind bars, feeling guilty in their own personal hell!! WE miss you soo much Stevie but we know you are with God looking down from Heaven.

  • Norco Girl January 26, 2011 (8:04 pm)

    I have known John for a long time and i am deeply sadden by the events that have taken place. I was looking for a lost friend and found this.I have been following this story and Im stil in shock. Im am so sorry for both families…. There is nothing that can make up for a life lost. God be with both families.

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