Bassett guilty of murder
Second-degree murder verdict returned after four hours
A Hamilton County jury convicted Zackery Bassett of second-degree murder Tuesday in the September 2018 killing of Andrea Sokolowski.
Deliberation started after noon on Tuesday, after 10 days at trial including two days of jury selection. The jury returned a verdict around 4 p.m.
Bassett was ultimately charged with first-degree murder after Sokolowski was found unresponsive at the couple’s Webster City apartment at 639 ½ Second Street. The jury also had the options of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, assault causing bodily injury and assault.
First-degree murder would have required the jury to be convinced of premeditation, deliberation and specific intent, which state attorneys argued was present by the very nature of Sokolowski’s death — asphyxiation by strangulation requires several minutes of sustained, consistent pressure to cause death.
A second-degree murder verdict meant that the jury believed Bassett assaulted Sokolowski with malice aforethought the night she died, causing her death, but without the specific intent and premeditation elements required to clinch a first-degree verdict.
The penalty for second-degree murder is up to 50 years in prison, at least 35 of which must be served before becoming eligible for parole.
But even without a mandatory life in prison sentence, Sokolowski’s family was satisfied with the verdict.
“Obviously, we wanted first-degree, but we’re still happy with it,” said Jared Foster, Sokolowski’s son. “It’s basically a life sentence, in a way.”
Bassett, 34, will not be eligible for parole until he is at least 67, assuming he receives credit for time served in jail awaiting trial.
But as the victim’s family reflected on justice, they acknowledged a life sentence doled out to them outside of the court’s discretion.
“I feel like I have a parallel life sentence in a different way,” said Aaron Sokolowski, Andrea’s ex-husband who supported her after their divorce and through her abusive relationship with Bassett.
While 35 to 50 years in prison will never be enough justice for the woman they loved, they said it will be enough to let them begin to grieve after nearly two and a half years in suspense.
“(It will mean) hopefully a lot of healing, finally crying and finally accepting,” said Denise McKnight, the victim’s daughter. “I (still) feel like she’s going to walk through the door, or call me, laughing.”
“You know,” McKnight said, as her voice broke, “I haven’t been able to let go and heal from it. She’s gone forever.”
After being forced to tear open a wound that had never healed with trial exhibits, they still remember Andrea for her infectious laugh, her smile and her positive attitude, no matter how difficult times were.
“She was a very unique person,” said her ex-husband. “That (kind of person) doesn’t come around very often.”
It was with those smiles and laughs, they said, through which Andrea put on a brave face, choosing to live with the man that confirmed her worst fears. In the months preceding her death, she told friends she feared for her life with her boyfriend. In the weeks leading up to her death, friends and family told her accounts of being pinned down and muffled to the point of passing out.
After Bassett was arrested for domestic abuse assault in August 2018, the family said they enjoyed a few weeks of reprieve while she remained out of his grip. But as his threats against their family mounted, they said she eventually chose to live with him again — something the defense highlighted with her request to discontinue a no contact order.
“She, at the end, went back to protect all of us,” said Aaron Sokolowski. “She was a brave person to do that, self-sacrifice her life for everybody else.”
And after the unthinkable happened, he said that Andrea Sokolowski could have been any of them at the hands of Bassett. Knowing he would be excoriated by defense attorneys combing through his divorce decree, he showed up at trial to secure justice for her. There, defense attorneys harped on the times the victim falsely accused her ex-husband of domestic abuse assault.
“It was just what I had to do. It was for her. I had to get her justice,” Aaron Sokolowski said. “I never stopped loving her.”
He answered her final phone calls for help during fights with Bassett, and he was there when state attorneys called him as a witness to secure justice after she couldn’t cry anymore.
The state’s argument balanced its strength on an abundance of pinpoint petechiae hemorrhages — a sign of strangulation — and text messages between the victim and her killer the night of her death. Their closing argument underscored Bassett’s loss of control towards the end of the relationship.
Her final texts, less than two hours before she was reported unresponsive, told Bassett that she was ending the relationship.
Differing accounts between what Bassett told 911 operators, first responders, Webster City Police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation also proved to be a disadvantage in defense arguments. Running with Bassett’s last account to the DCI — that the victim died in the course of rough sex — the defense asserted that positional asphyxia, not asphyxia from strangulation, was the most likely cause of death. On rebuttal Tuesday, the state poked more holes in the theory by reiterating minor changes of details present in each of his accounts, even withstanding the change of the story itself.
Even with a new explanation for the death in November 2018, his descriptions of when he first noticed the victim unconscious and when he first started doing CPR were inconsistent with the actions that would be required to cause symptoms shown in the autopsy results, the state said.
“Why are all these contradictions important?” said Assistant Attorney General Keisha Cretsinger. “If he is telling the truth, they should all make sense and fit together.”
But the defense had arguments to their advantage, as well.
“Andrea’s death was a tragedy, but it wasn’t a crime,” said defense attorney Michelle Wolf. “And the state can’t prove to you that it was a crime.”
The defense emphasized the state medical examiner’s inconclusive autopsy, which was ruled a likely death by asphyxia but did not conclude homicide as the manner of death.
Defense closing arguments touched on the victim’s credibility, neighbors not hearing a fight the night of the murder and law enforcement colluding with the state medical examiner by way of their own confirmation bias. Along the way, they accused the state of cherry picking evidence.
“(Foster) poisoned the well,” Wolf said, referring to the victim’s son bringing her death to the attention of the DCI after he said Webster City Police failed to act.
Though they conceded an unhealthy relationship between the couple, closing arguments glossed over the injuries witnesses described seeing on the victim. Explanations for the cause of those injuries, as Sokolowski told witnesses, was inadmissible for the jury’s consideration since it was hearsay.
Bassett’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 6.