Conviction overturned in cold case murders of Vancouver Island couple

Conviction overturned in cold case murders of Vancouver Island couple
William Talbott was previously found guilty in June 2019 in the 1987 murders of 18 year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and 20-year-old Jay Cook, both from Saanich. File photo.

A guilty ruling against a U.S. man convicted in the 1987 murders of a young Saanich couple has been reversed due to juror bias by a court of appeal.

William Earl Talbott II, a Seattle-area man, was found guilty in the double homicide of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend Jay Cook in June 2019.

The couple was last seen alive when they set out for a road trip to Seattle in November 1987.

About a week later, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found naked from the waist down and authorities said she was shot in the back of the head.

Cook’s body was discovered two days later and authorities said he was beaten with rocks and determined twine used to strangle him came from the back of the couple’s van.

Their brutal killings remained a cold case for decades until investigators, through the use of genetic genealogy, were able to identify Talbott as the person who left his DNA on the clothing of one of the victims.

But on Monday, Talbott’s conviction was overturned in the Washington State Court of Appeals not because of problems with the forensic genealogy, but because a judge found a juror was “improperly allowed” onto the jury after expressing bias in her comments during voir dire.

In a 13-page document, a judge found that the juror indicated she might have difficulty with the topics and evidence of the trial due to past traumatic experiences and as a new mother, and that she was unsure if she could be fair.

While Talbott moved to have the juror dismissed, that was denied and the juror was seated, and deliberated on the trial.

In a transcript from the voir dire, the juror states: “It’s just, like I said, I’m an emotional person as it is, and I try to be very, very logical and methodical in decisions I make in my life and, you know, trying to see both sides of everything. But like I said, if it’s a case involving violence and women, it’s just something that I’ve already experienced in my life, and I fear that I will always inherently have as a mother.”

Judge Cecily Hazelrigg stated in her ruling that the appeals court could not find the juror was “sufficientily rehabilitated” from repeated expressions of bias to ensure Talbott received a fair and impartial jury.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell told CHEK News Monday that prosecutors’ next steps will be to determine whether they want to seek a review of the appeals court’s decision at the Washington State Supreme Court level.

If the Supreme Court of Washington State decides to hear the case, it could either reverse the appeal court’s decision, or affirm it.

If prosecutors decline to seek a review, a new trial could happen as early as spring 2022, Cornell said. If the decision is upheld by the Supreme Court, it could take a year or more before the case is finally re-tried.

Cornell expressed sympathy for the families of Cook and Van Cuylenborg, saying he couldn’t imagine how devastating Monday’s decision would have been for them.

“The finality of that conviction was something that I’m sure was very meaningful to the families, although it will never bring their loved ones back,” he said. “I’m sure the families are gutted. We’re going to be thoughtful in our decision as to whether to seek review. If we do seek review, we are going to defend the conviction vigorously and with all the reouces that we have as an office.”

The prosecutor’s office has until Jan. 5 to decide whether it will seek a review of the appeal court’s decision.

Saanich couple Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg are shown prior to their murders in 1987. (File)

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