Grant County Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline removed himself Thursday from hearing the case of Barry Loukaitis, the 15-year-old Moses Lake boy charged with killing two classmates and a teacher.
Sperline’s decision will further delay an emotional case that’s been in limbo since mid-April.
Last month, prosecutors and defense attorneys made a joint request for Sperline to step aside, suggesting the judge has a close relationship with the family of one of the victims.
Sperline granted the motion, but insisted the main reason was the need to avoid giving any appearance of bias.
In a 16-page statement, the judge acknowledged he has been an acquaintance of the family of Arnie Fritz, one of three people allegedly shot to death by Loukaitis on Feb. 2 at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake.
But Sperline denied that his association with the Fritz family was unusually close. He said a refusal to step aside would almost certainly have drawn an appeal, further dragging out the case.
Grant County officials now must find a new judge before continuing a hearing to decide if Loukaitis should be tried as an adult.
Both Grant County Prosecutor John Knodell and defense attorney Guillermo Romero said they hoped that hearing could resume within a month.
Loukaitis is charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder for shooting the school’s algebra teacher, Leona Caires, and classmates Manuel Vela Jr. and Fritz, both 14. Loukaitis is also charged with first-degree assault in the wounding of Natalie Hintz, 13.
The hearing has been delayed since April, when Sperline said testimony by a psychiatrist about Loukaitis’ mental state could not be public.
The Spokesman-Review challenged Sperline’s closing of the hearing. The state Court of Appeals last month ruled the hearing must be open to the public.
By the time that ruling was handed down, however, prosecutors and defense lawyers had presented their motion seeking Sperline’s removal from the case.
They cited his 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 his statement Thursday, Sperline said sympathy for families of victims “is not a reasonable basis on which to question a judge’s impartiality.”
Judges in controversial cases have little choice but remove questions of potential bias, legal experts said.
“It’s the appearance of fairness as well as actual fairness” that is important, said Seattle University law professor David Boerner.
The defense and prosecution both said the next judge would not need to start from square one to continue the trial.
The net result is that whoever becomes judge, the key step will be deciding if Loukaitis is tried as an adult. Defense attorney Romero lauded Sperline’s decision:
“My client will get a better trial this way,” he added, noting that Sperline’s decision was “consistent with keeping the integrity of the court intact.”