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Criminal Trials Set Record Increase Reflects Sweetser Promise; Other Court Business Bogged Down

Spokane’s 11 Superior Court judges are concluding their busiest year ever, thanks to a record 180 criminal trials.

The extra work - 40 percent more than in 1996 - comes largely from Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser, who says he’s fulfilling a 3-year-old campaign promise by taking more criminals to trial.

Sweetser said he’s sending a message to lawbreakers that the days of toothless plea bargains are over.

“If you talk a good game but don’t follow through, it sets the tone. The defendants now know that we’re serious about going to trial,” he said.

Most of the increase in criminal trials stems from a crackdown on illegal drugs, property crimes and domestic violence.

The added trial load, however, is shoving aside other important court business.

“The criminal cases are the 800-pound gorilla. It comes in and pushes everything else out of its way,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue.

Because criminal cases get top priority for available courtrooms, civil lawsuits, divorce and child-custody cases and estate contests are on hold.

“If someone’s house is being foreclosed or they’ve been injured in an auto accident and need to have those concerns addressed, to that person that’s the most important thing in their lives,” Donohue said.

Others complain about the cost of bringing so many cases to trial and question whether the community is any safer as a result. Jury costs alone have totaled $265,000 this year, another county record.

Complex lawsuits that once went to trial within a year now take more than twice as long to resolve, according to court administrators.

Because of the civil backlog in Superior Court, judges in the county’s lower court recently made it easier for people with disputes to come before them.

The old limit for civil claims in District Court was $25,000. The court increased the limit three months ago to $35,000.

“I’ve just filed my first personal injury tort claim in Spokane District Court,” said attorney Louis Rukavina.

“The extra delay (in moving cases through Superior Court) is something I now have to address with my clients when we discuss their case.”

Frustration over the logjam led Spokane attorney Richard Eymann to threaten a lawsuit against Spokane County commissioners, claiming they’ve neglected to pay for two more judges authorized by the Legislature.

Donohue said Eymann backed off that threat this summer when commissioners said they’d pay for one more Superior Court judge for 1998.

But commissioners changed their mind this fall and now say they can’t afford the extra judge until 1999.

“I expect I’ll be talking with Mr. Eymann before long about this,” said Donohue, Superior Court’s presiding judge.

Sweetser says the increase in criminal trials shows his office is operating more efficiently.

“I was elected to get results,” he said.

The county’s rate of criminal cases going to trial is now approaching that of Washington’s other large counties, Sweetser said.

In King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, 7 out of every 100 criminal charges end up going to trial.

In Spokane, the current rate is 6.2 percent, up from 4.5 percent last year, according to Sweetser.

The end result of his office’s aggressive posture, he said, is longer prison terms.

But that doesn’t mean the public is any safer, said Spokane County Public Defender Don Westerman.

In some cases, defendants who would have pleaded guilty to lesser charges wound up getting acquitted at trial, Westerman said.

“Because prosecutors are less flexible, I see clients digging in their heels and saying, ‘Heck, I’d rather risk going to trial,”’ he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Going to trial

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