September 14, 1996 in Nation/World

Prosecutor Reassigns Deputy To District Court Health Problems Cited As Reason Lee Is Leaving Major Crimes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A Spokane County deputy prosecutor - who’s been on the hot seat for allowing a man out on furlough who was later accused of rape - has been reassigned to district court.

Starting next week, Kathryn Lee, team leader for the prosecutor’s major crimes unit, will take over as supervisor of the district court division.

Prosecutor Jim Sweetser said Lee’s health has kept her from performing her job effectively and that is why she was reassigned.

Putting Lee in charge of the team handling misdemeanors and traffic crimes is not a demotion, Sweetser insisted Friday.

“She requested the change for health reasons,” Sweetser said.

Lee joined the staff last fall and was trying to learn the Spokane County court system during its all-time busiest criminal trial period, Sweetser said.

“She was swamped” by the growing number of major crimes coming through her office, Sweetser said.

But Sweetser avoided saying whether he would have made the reassignment if Lee had not requested the change.

“I always make all job assignments on the basis of performance. And that’s what we did here,” Sweetser said.

Lee came to Spokane from Okanogan County in late 1995. In March she took over the major crimes unit, which handles murders, kidnappings, assaults and robberies.

In the past two months she received harsh public criticism for her role in two department decisions.

In late July she did not prosecute a Spokane man with eight felony convictions who earlier this year had been videotaped trying to rob a convenience store.

The case was dismissed when Lee did not meet the state’s speedy trial deadline. She said she made the decision not to prosecute Keith L. Dafler, 38, for first-degree attempted armed robbery because evidence against the suspect was weak.

The store manager and the detective who investigated the crime expressed disbelief at Lee’s decision.

Last month, Lee again became the target of public anger after a career criminal was accused of raping a 14-year-old girl two days after leaving the Spokane County Jail on an eight-day furlough.

Lee signed the order that helped James Edward Jones, 44, receive a furlough. He was awaiting sentencing on a theft charge.

Jones is now accused of first-degree rape and unlawful imprisonment.

After the outcry, the prosecutor’s office changed its furlough policy, no longer consenting to jail releases involving convicted felons.

On Friday, Lee insisted she wasn’t being pushed out of her job.

“Nobody pushed me anywhere but my doctor,” she said.

In the past few months, Lee, who is in her mid-40s, has been hampered by bursitis in the hip. Appearing in court Friday, she relied on a cane and walked slowly.

She’s been responsible for directing more than 35 major felony prosecutions since being promoted to major crimes leader. Those included more than 20 murder cases.

She defends her record.

“I’ve had to make 60 to 100 discretionary decisions each week. … Almost all have been the right ones. But yes, there are things I’d now do different than before,” she said.

“We’re human and we’re trying to do the best we can under a crushing caseload.”

Sweetser said he’s promoted Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll to head major crimes.

Driscoll might be stronger than Lee in “organizational skills,” said Sweetser. He said Lee was an exceptional prosecutor and excellent as a unit manager.

He also said Lee’s problems were compounded by not having worked several years in the county court system.

She fell victim, he said, to the unusual responsibility of having to take on the job of assigning court pleas and arraignments through the prosecutor’s office.

That task is done everywhere else in Washington state by the court administrator’s office, he said.

After promoting Lee to team leader of major crimes, Sweetser acknowledged the action set off sniping and criticism from those he had passed over.

Office politics also dogged her efforts because Lee had taken an anti-union position inside the prosecutor’s office - which has nearly 50 deputy prosecutors.

“I’m sure this reassignment is making some people here in the prosecutor’s office very happy,” said one deputy prosecutor. “You can’t use my name or it’ll cost me my job.”

Sweetser would not say how much Lee will earn as district court team supervisor. The county’s major crimes team leader earns between $46,000 and $65,000 per year.

Lee will retain control of about 10 of the cases she’s been responsible for since March.

As head of the district court unit, Lee will be in charge of eight deputy prosecutors who handle all misdemeanor charges and some city and county traffic cases.

The job involves management and training of interns. The district court unit handles more than 17,000 cases each year.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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