February 25, 1996 in Nation/World

Grand Jury: Streamlining Or Railroading? Kootenai County System Called Both ‘Efficient,’ ‘Rubber Stamp’

Winda Benedetti Eric Sorensen Contrib Staff writer
 

The 10-year-old boy faced his attacker alone.

By the end of 1995, he had been molested and raped at least 10 times, according to court records.

When the abuse stopped, the last thing the boy wanted was to face his alleged attacker again, even in the safety of a courtroom.

So far he hasn’t had to because of a controversial legal approach being used in Kootenai County for the first time in 20 years - the grand jury.

Robert Dee Schwendiman, a longtime Pullman businessman and a convicted sex offender, was indicted last week on a charge of lewd conduct for allegedly molesting the boy at a Lake Coeur d’Alene cabin.

Schwendiman is one of the first people to be indicted by Kootenai County’s newly formed grand jury.

The jury has been called un-American and a violation of civil rights by some attorneys.

But the boy’s mother calls it “wonderful.”

“It is such a protection for the people who have suffered sexual attacks,” she said. “He felt safe in there because he didn’t have to confront the defense attorney and he didn’t have to confront Mr. Schwendiman.”

Schwendiman’s lawyer disagreed.

“History shows it tends to be a rubber stamp for the prosecutor,” said attorney Brian Butler.

Butler and other defense attorneys fear the grand jury lacks the legal sophistication of a judge. Therefore they will agree to indict in just about any case put before them by the prosecutor, Butler said.

Schwendiman didn’t even know he was being investigated by the grand jury until he was roused from his Pullman home and arrested at 1 a.m. Thursday, Butler said.

Since being formed seven weeks ago, the Kootenai County grand jury has indicted six people on nine separate charges - all of them sex or drug crimes, said Bill Douglas, Kootenai County Prosecutor.

Among those indicted:

Raymundo Martinez, 30, of Coeur d’Alene, three counts of lewd conduct with a child. He is accused of molesting a 13-year-old girl numerous times.

Hector L. Medina, 30, one count of drug trafficking in methamphetamine.

Jesus E. Mercado, 34, of Sunnyside, Wash., one count of conspiracy to commit drug trafficking.

Oscar Barreto, 25, of Kennewick, Wash., one count for conspiracy to commit drug trafficking.

Kootenai County prosecutors would not reveal how many cases they have put before the grand jury so far, nor would they say whether the grand jury refused to indict anyone.

In the past, sex crime victims often testified at a preliminary hearing. They sat in front of their abusers and often were grilled by the defense attorney as a judge decided whether there was enough evidence to support charges.

But when the grand jury meets it is in secret. There is no judge. The victim and police are allowed to testify while the accused person has no right to be there, and neither does a defense attorney.

The panel is made up of 16 Kootenai County citizens who are given broad investigative powers. If at least 12 of them agree, they can charge a person with a crime.

In January, the Spokane County prosecutor’s office charged Schwendiman with first-degree child molestation and first-degree child rape for abusing the boy during visits to the boy’s south Spokane County home.

The Kootenai County grand jury followed suit last week.

Schwendiman had become good friends with his alleged victim’s family, said the boy’s mother. Her name is withheld to protect her son’s identity. The family met Schwendiman through its church and through the Pullman community where he runs The Country Store.

Schwendiman’s business is popular among Washington State University students who go there to find cheap, used furniture.

“This guy preys on people who are down,” the mother said, explaining she believes the abuse began while her husband was recovering from colon cancer.

“I was working long hours trying to provide for the family,” she said. Schwendiman rented the family a home and often came by for visits, offering to help around the house.

Sometimes, he would arrive in his motor home and stay the night.

“He would say to the kids, ‘Hey, who wants to come over and spend the night at my place, I’m going to do all these fun things,”’ she said. “You’re so weak and so vulnerable you’re saying ‘Oh, a helping hand, thank you.”’

It wasn’t until November that her youngest son finally began telling them about the naked showers, the touching and the rapes, she said.

In July, the boy, his brothers and father went with Schwendiman to his cabin on Lake Coeur d’Alene, according to a sheriff’s report. The boy says that while the others slept, Schwendiman molested him.

“He just shook when he told me what happened,” she said. “He was shaking and crying and terrified of what was going to happen to him.”

In 1986, Schwendiman was charged with three counts of indecent liberties for having sexual contact with a girl younger than 14 years old. The charges later were amended to a single count of indecent liberties.

Schwendiman did not have to register as a sex offender because his sentence ended a month before the registration law went into effect.

Schwendiman denies the accusations, Butler said. “He is anxious to have his day in court.”

Like Butler, Kootenai County Public Defender Ron Coulter is opposed to the new grand jury.

“There’s no real rights for your client,” he said. “The biggest thing is that there is no representation of the defendant.”

Wayne Longo, a state drug officer, said the grand jury’s benefit outweighs the concerns. His office helped bring the drug charges against Medina, Mercado and Barreto.

“The grand jury, with these types of cases, just makes it a little more streamlined and efficient,” he said. Rather than having three separate and lengthy preliminary hearings with three different defense attorneys, they were able to present their case against each man at one time.

And the boy’s mother said it was a great relief for her son to testify in the privacy of the grand jury.

“He is very scared of the defense attorney” and of Schwendiman, she said. “Whatever threats this guy has had against my son, they’re sitting right in front of him.”

If the case goes to trial, it’s likely the boy will have to face Schwendiman in trial. But his mother said that will give him enough time to feel stronger and more secure.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL SPEED AHEAD Since being formed seven weeks ago, the Kootenai County grand jury has indicted six people on nine separate charges - all of them sex or drug crimes. Kootenai County prosecutors would not reveal how many cases they have put before the grand jury. The panel is made up of 16 Kootenai County citizens who are given broad investigative powers. If at least 12 of the panelists agree, they can charge a person with a crime.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Winda Benedetti Staff writer Staff writer Eric Sorensen contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL SPEED AHEAD Since being formed seven weeks ago, the Kootenai County grand jury has indicted six people on nine separate charges - all of them sex or drug crimes. Kootenai County prosecutors would not reveal how many cases they have put before the grand jury. The panel is made up of 16 Kootenai County citizens who are given broad investigative powers. If at least 12 of the panelists agree, they can charge a person with a crime.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Winda Benedetti Staff writer Staff writer Eric Sorensen contributed to this report.

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