A Kittitas County judge has agreed to take over the Barry Loukaitis murder case.
Last week, Grant County Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline removed himself from the case. A motion filed by prosecutors and defense attorneys asserted that Sperline had a social relationship with one of the victim’s families.
Sperline said he stepped aside to avoid a possible retrial later.
Loukaitis, 15, of Moses Lake, is charged with killing two classmates and a junior high school teacher last February.
The assignment of Judge Michael E. Cooper of Ellensburg means the long-delayed, emotional case can resume and move toward trial.
Sperline will take over Cooper’s Kittitas County Superior Court docket for as long as Cooper works in Ephrata on the Loukaitis case.
Cooper’s immediate task is to become familiar with the early phases of the proceedings, including several days of testimony in a pre-trial hearing to decide whether Loukaitis should be tried as an adult.
That hearing was halted in April when The Spokesman-Review challenged Sperline’s decision to close portions of the testimony from the public. Before it could resume, attorneys objected to Sperline’s participation in the case.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys now hope to resume the postponed hearing around Sept. 1, said Grant County Court Administrator Mindi Finke. Prosecutors had at first thought the hearing would have to start over, but the plan now calls for Cooper to review previous testimony, Finke said.
Grant County Prosecutor John Knodell has told court officials he’d try to conclude the prosecution portion of the hearing within a week after it resumes.
After the hearing ends, the defense will enter a plea.
If Loukaitis pleads not guilty, Cooper will decide when the trial would begin.
Loukaitis is charged with three counts of first-degree aggravated murder in the shooting deaths of algebra teacher Leona Caires and students Manuel Vela Jr. and Arnie Fritz, both 14. He is also charged with first-degree assault for wounding 13-year-old classmate Natalie Hintz.
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