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Murder victim's family speaks as jury weighs death penalty in Schierman case

Relatives of the slain Milkin family recalled a happy, vibrant, beautiful pair of boys and two women during the opening of the penalty phase for Conner Schierman Monday.

Pavel Milkin told Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott O'Toole in Superior Court Monday he envisioned his grandchildren, Justin, 5 and Andrew, 3, growing up, going to college and having “grand grand children for me.”

But now he can only dream as he spends his time at the cemetery crying.

“It's really, really hard to talk about," Milkin said as he apologized to the jury for his tears. “My heart is bleeding all the time.”

The victim's family has made a satisfactory recovery, they said in testimony, but their feelings are not completely gone. Just four years ago, Olga’s husband, Leonid, wearing Army fatigues, was brought to his family home, where detectives gave him a brief tour of what remained of his burned home.

During his testimony Monday, Leonid told jurors how his wife bought the Slater Avenue home while he was away for Army training. When he came back to Kirkland on leave, he was blown away at how his high school sweetheart had "basically remodeled the house on her own."

The same jury that convicted Schierman of first-degree aggravated murder and one count of arson April 12 will decide whether he should receive life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Schierman is responsible for the July 17, 2006 killings of his Kirkland neighbors: Olga Milkin, 28; her sons, Justin and Andrew; and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24. Olga’s husband, Leonid Milkin, was serving in Iraq as a member of the National Guard at the time.

But the jury panel will have to decide whether or not laying out Schierman’s life story is compelling enough narrative.

“No one will ever forget what happened in this courtroom, nor should they,” Defense Attorney James Conroy said in his opening statement. “The punishment choices you face are narrow: death by incarceration or death by lethal injection … This is obviously a very egregious case.”

Conroy is trying to spare Schierman from the most extreme punishment by talking about Conner, “speak(ing) to whom they knew him to be,” bringing in Schierman's family, friends, co-workers, former teachers and treatment counselors.

Conroy had previously suggested during closing arguments weeks ago that a third party may have committed the murders while Schierman was blacked out.

"You from people who care about him today, who care about him in the past and many who will continue to care about him in the future," Conroy said in his opening statement. “Every witness you hear from in this phase will have one thing in common - the total and sincere shock when they learned that Conner was arrested for these terrible crimes.”

Born in Seattle in 1981, Schierman lived in Bellevue and graduated from Newport High School in 2000. He had worked at Carillon Point Properties at the Carillon Point business and hotel complex in Kirkland for more than a year before the 2006 murders. Co-workers said they never had a problem with him personally. He also worked at a pet store, where he was promoted to assistant manager.

At times, he struggled with drugs and alcohol, eventually seeking treatment. Schierman’s attorney lauded him for taking responsibility for his actions.

"We have struggled to match this young man with the crime," Conroy said.

The family witnesses were a part of O'Toole's and Kirkland Police Detective Brad Porter's strategy to demonstrate the “ripple effect” Schierman’s actions had on the family over the past four years. They called in about half-dozen witnesses to the stand -- one witness for each victim: Pavel and Leonid Milkin; Yelena Shidlovski, the oldest sister of Olga and Lubov; and Lyubov Botvina, their mother who shares the same name.

“It’s not just the loss of victims, or of hope -- they’re things as mundane as the reality of planning four funerals,” O’Toole said.

With the state successfully linking Schierman to the killings through DNA evidence, O'Toole reprised his statement to the jury during the jury trial, saying, “sooner or later, everyone sits down to their banquet of consequences.”

"It is still about the defendant, Conner Schierman, but it’s still about four very real human beings," O'Toole said. "Guilt is no longer an issue in this case; punishment is … The question for you, the fundamental question I’m going to suggest to you is … did the defendant get what he wanted? Or did the defendant get what he deserves?”

Father Milkin remembers how inquisitive the boys – who knew him as “Pasha” - were about his job as a welder at Foss Maritime Company in Seattle, where he has worked for 15 years. Little Justin or Andrew would ask would ask their grandfather if they could have one of his tools and then they would pass it along to him. Milkin, who saw his grandchildren almost every day, recalled the days he would watch them on their bicycles, riding up and down the 9500 block of Slater Avenue. To their grandmother, their faces resembled those of dolls in a dollhouse.

That turned out to be the last he saw of them, Milkin testified.

Having moved to the United States in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Milkins were happy in America, said Lyubov and Olga’s mother, Lyubov Botvina, who currently works in the accounting department at the University of Washington. She spoke of family gatherings in the backyard and winter ski trips.

The five daughters that moved with her from Ukraine in 1993 spoke little or no English, but were determined to make something of themselves. Lyubov wanted to be an interpreter after finishing college. Olga worked as a dental assistant.

“She was such an easy person, she played sports all the time,” Botvina said.

The penalty phase is expected to last up to three weeks.

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