A Spokane judge’s refusal to accept a plea bargain has county prosecutors backpedaling and considering filing tougher charges against a man who killed a teenager during a drinking party last summer.
Prosecutors and police have reopened their investigation into the shooting death of 15-year-old Ricky Franetich at Minnehaha Park.
Authorities first booked 21-year-old Jeremy Conwell into jail on a second-degree murder charge. On June 30, four days after the shooting, prosecutors reduced the charge to second-degree manslaughter.
Three months later, citing weaknesses in the case, prosecutors decided to drop the manslaughter charge in favor of two gross misdemeanors. They recommended Conwell serve 90 days in jail.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor rejected the plea bargain.
O’Connor disagreed with the prosecutors’ conclusion that Franetich’s death was an accident.
“It’s very rare to have a judge refuse a plea. But it does happen,” said Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll, who heads the office’s major crimes unit.
The victim’s parents, Debra and Tony Franetich, had no idea the prosecutor’s office had offered such a lenient deal to the man who had killed their son.
“I was totally stunned when I was in the hearing and heard what they were doing,” Debra Franetich said Wednesday.
She wonders if her family’s feelings were ignored because her children have had run-ins with the law. “I kind of feel they disregarded us, maybe because of our last name,” she said.
“But I thank God Judge O’Connor was there that day, asking questions about what they were doing.”
Prosecutors are now “back at square one,” said Driscoll. If new evidence is found, he said, the murder or manslaughter charge could be refiled.
Conwell hasn’t denied killing Franetich.
Witnesses said Conwell and Franetich were strangers when they got into an argument, supposedly after Conwell yelled at his girlfriend.
Conwell told officers Franetich punched him in the face. Three other men, who he assumed were the teenager’s friends, gathered around.
Fearing his life was in danger, Conwell ran a short distance, then pulled out a .45-caliber pistol he had hidden under his shirt, he told police.
He said he fired several “warning shots” in Franetich’s direction.
Two bullets struck Franetich in the head and chest. He died several hours later.
Conwell said he fled the scene and turned himself in, and only then learned he had killed someone.
Deputy Prosecutor Martin Rollins said he reduced the initial murder charge to manslaughter because the evidence didn’t show that Conwell, who has no criminal record, fired intentionally at Franetich. There were also contradictory witness accounts.
Three weeks ago, Rollins and defense attorney Steve Tucker agreed that Conwell would enter guilty pleas to two misdemeanors: second-degree reckless endangerment and carrying a concealed weapon.
County prosecutors typically make sure victims’ families consent to a plea bargain in cases involving serious or violent crimes.
But Rollins acknowledged that he never directly discussed the proposed 90-day jail term with the victim’s parents.
“I got the idea that they felt that whatever charges we came up with would be fine with them,” he said.
A typical prison term for second-degree manslaughter ranges from 14 months to several years. A gross misdemeanor carries a maximum one-year jail sentence and a $5,000 fine.
Char Archer, Debra Franetich’s sister-in-law, attended the Sept. 29 hearing in O’Connor’s court, then met with Rollins afterward.
Archer said the prosecutor told her, “I guess I made a mistake and I’m sorry.”
In rejecting the plea, O’Connor said, “There’s nothing in the record to indicate there was justification for (Conwell) using a weapon. There’s no indication Mr. Franetich had a weapon.”
Looking at emergency room records, O’Connor said the entry paths of the bullets suggest the victim was shot from above, indicating he may have been crouching at the time.
Police plan to interview two eye-witnesses who Debra Franetich said weren’t interviewed after the shooting, according to Driscoll.
Rollins said he recommended the plea bargain because he thought Conwell stood a good chance of being acquitted by a jury.
In a similar case last summer, a jury believed 20-year-old Eric Swanson shot a man in self-defense.
Swanson, a Marine on leave, had been charged with first-degree murder for killing 26-year-old Robert Wolbing last year outside the Deja Vu nightclub in the Valley.
“That was a good case,” Rollins said, “with physical evidence showing the victim had been shot in the back.”
Driscoll said he and Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser approved the proposed plea bargain.
Ironically, Sweetser played a key role in a 1994 murder prosecution involving the brother of the victim of this crime.
Weeks before being elected to his present job, Sweetser arranged a plea bargain for 17-year-old Tony Franetich, who had shot a man in the head outside a Spokane convenience store.
Sweetser reduced the charge from murder to first-degree assault, arranging a 10-year prison term for Franetich.
That action prompted then-Prosecutor Donald Brockett to give Sweetser a written reprimand.
Sweetser defended the plea at the time, saying it saved taxpayer money and avoided possible appeals.
Said Debra Franetich: “It causes me a lot of trouble realizing my son Tony shot a man who lived, and got 10 years in prison.
“So should they give the guy who killed somebody just 90 days?”