After a puzzling hiatus, Spokane County prosecutors are discovering the joy of going to trial.
They are lining up to strut their stuff in front of juries, refusing to plea bargain - usually with favorable results.
“It’s really been fun,” says Dave Hearrean, a deputy prosecutor who has been in trial every week since early June.
After starting with a hung jury, he notched guilty-as-charged verdicts in three out of four cases. “The more you go to trial,” he says, “the better you become.”
It’s a remarkable turnaround.
Last year, just 5 percent of Spokane County criminal cases went to trial - half the state average.
Now the number of criminal trials unfolding in Superior Court is on a record-setting pace, up 25 percent from last year. The number of days judges spend in trial has more than doubled.
Most observers credit the sudden about-face to mounting public frustration over crime and plea-bargaining, an infusion of police officers making more arrests, and a new prosecuting attorney.
Jim Sweetser, who took office in January, is encouraging his deputies to plead cases to a jury rather than sign off on questionable plea bargains.
The bottom line, he says, is longer sentences for dangerous criminals.
But there’s a downside to the trial upswing, court officials warn.
Ripple effects include delays in processing civil cases and an increase in jury and witness costs shouldered by taxpayers.
The prosecutor’s office has its own back splash to deal with: A glut of appeals from jury verdicts. Defendants can’t appeal when they plea bargain and don’t go to trial.
Judges are calling for reinforcements - namely an 11th department in Superior Court. That would mean an additional judge and staff, plus a new courtroom, all of which is expected to cost roughly $400,000.
“We have to have help,” says Presiding Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor. “We can’t continue to absorb these increases in our caseload.”
County commissioners have approved the request for help in principle, but no money has been promised. The county would pay for the costs of remodeling a courtroom and new staff but only 50 percent of the salaries. The state pays the rest.
Despite the added expense, there is little doubt the public strongly favors trials over plea bargains.
Sweetser, who replaced the retiring Prosecutor Don Brockett, said he expected the trial rate to rise after his staff adjusted to a new management style.
Under Sweetser’s “team approach,” prosecutors who go to trial no longer worry as much about falling behind in their caseload. They are backed up by other prosecutors and paralegals.
“The attorneys know they can rely on each other,” Sweetser says. “It’s more of a team effort, and that has allowed people to focus on trials.”
That may pay dividends later by lowering the frustration level in the office, teaching deputies trial skills and attracting better-qualified law school graduates, Sweetser said.
Hearrean has noticed another fringe benefit to the trial surge.
Settlement offers from defense attorneys, he says, are better than in the past.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TRIAL SURGE Spokane County Superior Court is on pace to set a record for criminal trials in a year. Following are statistics comparing the first six months of this year to the same period in 1994: Criminal trials - 1994: 48, 1995: 60 Days spent in trial - 1994: 42*, 1995: 98* Criminal filings - 1994: 1,140, 1995: 1,316 *January through May Source: Superior Court