Dispute Could Set Back Loukaitis Trial Lawyers From Both Sides Note Judge’s Friendship With Victim’s Family
An already stalled hearing to determine whether accused killer Barry Loukaitis should be tried as an adult may have to start over, now that lawyers on both sides want a new judge.
“We’ll be back to square one,” Grant County Deputy Prosecutor Robert Schiffner said Wednesday.
Loukaitis, 15, is accused of killing two classmates and a teacher during a Feb. 2 rampage at his school in Moses Lake.
The lawyers contend Grant County Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline did not reveal how close he is to the family of shooting victim Arnie Fritz, 14. Even Fritz’s family wants the judge removed, fearing a possible appeal.
Loukaitis’ pretrial hearing was delayed April 20 after the first week of testimony, while the state Court of Appeals reviewed a decision by Sperline to close key testimony to the public.
The higher court ruled the hearing should be kept open, and proceedings were to resume Aug. 19.
During the delay, however, prosecutors found out about a long-term relationship between Sperline and the Fritz family.
They filed a motion Tuesday asking the judge to recuse himself from the case, citing the judge’s membership in the same Moses Lake church as the Fritz family, his position as a Sunday School teacher there and evidence he wrote letters of recommendation for Arnie Fritz’s older sister.
Less than a week after the shooting, Sperline also sent a sympathy card to the Fritz family. In it, he wrote, “It is so tragic for a young person to die, especially in this senseless way.”
The judge also makes reference in the card to Arnie Fritz’s great-grandfather, Arnold, who died 12 years ago and whom Arnie is named after.
“I can’t help thinking of (Arnie) sitting with Arnold, listening to a beautiful, squeaky violin,” Sperline wrote.
Prosecutors said the note demonstrates the depth of the judge’s relationship to the Fritz family.
Sperline’s card moved family members because he remembered how “Arnie was the apple of my grandfather’s eye,” said Nyla Fritz, the victim’s sister.
Arnie Fritz’s mother, Alice Fritz, said she wants Sperline removed from the case.
“(The relationship) could open up the doors for an appeal,” she said. “It won’t do anyone any good to have to go through this again.”
The 200-page prosecutors’ motion also was signed by defense attorneys, who six months ago asked Sperline to recuse himself. “The court’s failure to mention the existence of the sympathy card, letters of recommendation and other facts surrounding his relationship with the Fritz family unfortunately raises the question of whether (Loukaitis) can receive a fair and impartial trial in front of Judge Sperline,” the motion states.
Sperline declined to comment on the motion Wednesday, except to note, “It makes no sense to me.”
He now must decide whether to recuse himself or call in an outside judge for an independent review.
In February, an Okanogan County judge gave Sperline the go-ahead to hear the case. However, the latest information regarding his relationship with the Fritz family had not been mentioned then.
If Sperline refuses to step down, the lawyers could take the matter to the Court of Appeals Division III in Spokane.