The fate of Kevin Coe – whose two rape trials galvanized Spokane in the 1980s – hangs on 12 jurors who will decide over the next eight weeks whether he walks free or is locked away indefinitely as a sexually violent predator.
Coe’s commitment trial is by far the biggest Assistant Attorney General Todd Bowers has handled.
“Take your normal sexual predator case and multiply it by 100 – that’s the scope of the Kevin Coe case,” Bowers said last week.
More than a quarter-century has passed since Coe, now 61, was labeled the “South Hill rapist.” In 1981 he was charged with six counts of rape. Coe’s first trial, in Spokane, resulted in his acquittal on two of the counts. Because police had hypnotized witnesses, the Washington Supreme Court overturned his other four convictions and ordered a new trial.
Coe was re-charged on the remaining four counts and tried in 1985 in Seattle. That trial resulted in a hung jury on one of the charges. Two of the three remaining charges were overturned on appeal to the Washington Supreme Court in 1988 because of the hypnosis. Coe served a full 25-year prison sentence until 2006 for the 1980 rape of the remaining victim.
Coe’s new jury must decide whether he has a mental abnormality that makes it “more likely than not” that he’ll strike again – and should be civilly committed. Unlike other civil trials, the verdict must be unanimous. Jury selection begins Monday.
In 1990, while Coe was in prison, Washington became the first state to pass the Sexually Violent Predator Act. Proponents say it’s a necessary tool to protect citizens. Some 20 other states now have similar laws, which have withstood constitutional challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court. Coe’s case is the state’s 100th civil commitment effort, Bowers said.
Critics, including Coe’s lead lawyer, say the civil commitment process is unfair to Coe and a threat to civil liberties because it imprisons people for things they might do.
“They are looking for an out-of-control pathology. The state wants to use unadjudicated offenses for which Coe was merely a suspect. We feel it’s outrageous to convict merely on suspicions,” said Tim Trageser, who specializes in civil commitment cases and was appointed by the court to represent Coe.
Coe, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence and was denied parole twice, refused sexual deviancy treatment while serving his sentence at Washington State Penitentiary, Trageser said.
“These guys are between a rock and a hard place. If they agree to treatment while incarcerated, they fear their records will be used against them,” Trageser added.
In a petition filed Aug. 30, 2006 – nine days before Coe was due to be released from prison – the attorney general’s office alleged that Coe is a dangerous sexual predator and should be held indefinitely at the state’s Special Commitment Center, a mental facility on McNeil Island where about 300 other former inmates are detained.
Many of the victims feared Coe’s release and were relieved when the state filed the petition, Bowers said.
To obtain a civil commitment, the state must prove that Coe has been convicted of a sexual assault, has a mental disorder and is likely to re-offend.
The attorney general’s office has reviewed more than 70,000 pages of records, including old police reports, Coe’s prison records and his mental health and medical records. One taped interview of Coe was retrieved from the home of a retired Spokane police detective. Some 200 potential witnesses for both sides are listed for the trial. But nearly all the physical evidence from the rapes has been destroyed.
In May, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen M. O’Connor ruled that 21 women on a list of nearly four dozen uncharged rape and indecent liberties accusations can be included in the trial. Of that total, 17 are alleged rapes. A final witness list isn’t finished.
O’Connor also has ruled that four of six people can testify who accused Coe of indecent liberties – including a high school student who met Coe at a school dance in Spokane in 1966 and asked him to drive her home. Coe allegedly parked his car and got on top of her.
No charges were filed in the case, but the car Coe was driving was traced to his father – the late Gordon Coe, a Spokane Daily Chronicle editor who later became the paper’s managing editor and directed coverage of the “South Hill rapist” case until his son was charged. He died in 1999.
The rules governing civil commitment trials allow the use of testimony from some of Coe’s accusers so a jury can weigh Coe’s propensity for future violence, O’Connor noted in her ruling.
Coe was acquitted of two of the rapes that now may be introduced at the civil commitment trial. Trageser has filed a motion to inform the jury of that fact.
J.H., the only woman whose rape accusation against Coe withstood a series of appeals, will be a key witness for the state. Although she is identified in court documents, The Spokesman-Review generally avoids identifying sexual assault victims.
According to the state’s trial memorandum, J.H. will testify that on the evening of Oct. 23, 1980, she left work in downtown Spokane and boarded a bus for the South Hill home that she and her husband had moved into the day before.
Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, she got off the bus at the wrong stop and had to walk north on Freya to 22nd Avenue, where she turned east. A stranger jogged past her. When she approached the intersection of 22nd and Rebecca, Coe jumped out of the bushes where he’d been lying in wait, forcing a gloved hand into her mouth.
When J.H. studied his face as she struggled with him, Coe hit her and “things kind of went black for just a second,” the trial memorandum says.
Coe asked her about her sex life before raping her and said he’d kill her if she called the police, the memorandum says.
Coe was arrested March 10, 1981, after a series of rapes of women as young as 14 had prompted an outraged public to criticize police for not solving the case faster. J.H. identified Coe in a police lineup shortly after his arrest. Spokane police investigators attributed 43 sexual attacks to the South Hill rapist from 1979 to 1981.
In a July 1981 newspaper interview, Coe, then 34, said he was innocent and he and his mother, Ruth Coe, were actually trying to catch the rapist. Ruth Coe was tried and found guilty in 1982 of trying to hire a hit man to kill the Spokane judge and cripple the prosecutor who convicted her son.
Trageser will emphasize in the trial that Coe was convicted of only one rape, doesn’t deserve the “South Hill rapist” moniker and is not mentally ill. Of 41 alleged victims, at least 10 identified other offenders, Trageser said.
“Now, a quarter of a century later, they are coming forward and saying, ‘That was him,’ ” Trageser said.
The state doesn’t plan to ask any of the women to identify Coe in court, Bowers told O’Connor last week. Trageser will get a chance to cross-examine the women who testify and is seeking to call a memory expert.
The state plans to call several other witnesses who’ll provide information “linking Mr. Coe generally to the South Hill rapes and sexual assaults.” They include John Cockburn, Coe’s ex-brother-in-law, who will testify that Coe often wore gloves; Coe denied wearing them. “Many of the victims will testify that the man who raped them wore gloves and in some cases, stuck his gloved hand in their mouth during the offense,” the trial memorandum says.
The state also plans to call up to 10 other women who say they were raped by Coe and were hypnotized by police as part of the investigation. The hypnosis accomplished little, Bowers said. It also was a legal disaster for prosecutors, leading to the overturning of two of three remaining rape convictions after Coe’s lawyers appealed.
During the Washington State Supreme Court’s arguments on Coe’s appeal in 1987, Chief Justice Vernon Pearson called hypnosis “witness tampering of the worst kind.”
The state lost a significant argument last week when O’Connor ruled they cannot use any post-hypnotic testimony before Coe’s new jury. Trageser said reports by two of the state’s leading experts – Drs. Amy Phenix and Robert Keppel – are “tainted” because they used some post-hypnotic evidence to arrive at their conclusions.
O’Connor, saying she’s bound by the state Supreme Court’s hypnosis ruling, ordered the state to go through their expert reports and delineate which evidence is pre-hypnotic and which is post-hypnotic.
“That was a huge thing. Coe’s convictions were overturned twice on hypnosis. They have to retool their entire case now,” Trageser said.
Keppel, a former detective for the King County Sheriff’s Office, was chief criminal investigator for the attorney general for 17 years. He has investigated more than 1,000 rapes and uses “signature crime analysis” to help solve cases. The Washington Supreme Court endorsed the technique in a 1994 case.
Keppel analyzed 51 sexual assaults in Spokane between 1971 and 1981. The first one he analyzed was J.H.’s rape.
He identified five behaviors common to the rapes: intimidation, co-opting a victim’s compliance, undoing his own clothes, an urgent need for sex and talking with the victim about their sex lives. Keppel determined Coe’s “signature” was present in 17 other cases from April 1978 to February 1981.
Trageser is skeptical about the analysis and says Keppel can’t point to Coe as the rapist. Keppel “ignores that of the 17, many said Coe was not the perpetrator and several didn’t identify him,” Trageser said.
The state will also present its Homicide Investigation Tracking System, which maintains two databases for homicides and more than 8,000 sexual assaults.
When the database was queried on J.H.’s 1980 rape, 26 cases had a similar pattern, including the rapist being a stranger, use of force and threats to use a weapon, the state’s trial brief says.
The state also plans to introduce DNA evidence from J.H. and another alleged victim. A slide taken from a third woman was suppressed in a court ruling last week because the state didn’t share the DNA evidence with Coe’s lawyers.
DNA results in the J.H. case “link the Respondent (Coe) as the perpetrator,” but doesn’t contain her own DNA, the state’s trial memorandum says. The other slide the state is allowed to introduce was negative for Coe’s DNA and only contains the DNA of the woman’s consensual sexual partner.
Phenix, the state’s psychological expert, has conducted about 150 sexually violent predator evaluations, including about 30 in Washington.
She evaluated Coe at the request of the Department of Corrections’ End of Sentence Review Committee and said he “appears to meet the statutory definition” of a sexually violent predator. In March 2005, the sentencing review committee declared Coe a level 3 sex offender – a necessary prelude to the civil commitment process.
Phenix cannot tell the jury that Coe is a sexually violent predator, the state’s brief says. But she can say his mental problems make him “more likely than not to commit predatory acts of sexual violence” if he’s set free, the state says. Coe’s attorneys are seeking to prevent her from telling the jury that Coe is the perpetrator – saying that’s a judgment only the jury can make.
Coe at first refused to submit to a personal interview or testing by Phenix. After O’Connor ordered him to cooperate last year, Coe was interviewed for two days with Trageser at his side.
Phenix diagnosed Coe as a paraphilic rapist, one who cannot control his urges and is driven by an urge for non-consensual sex. Phenix said Coe’s abnormal traits include sadism, exhibitionism, and a fascination with urine and feces. In addition, Coe has a personality disorder with “narcissistic, antisocial and histrionic strains,” the state’s brief says.
Trageser will present a far different portrait of Coe during the trial. Kathy Coe, Kevin’s sister, will testify for the defense. In a 1985 interview with Seattle television station KING-TV during her brother’s retrial, she said her family members weren’t “monsters” but victims in a case of mistaken identity.
Coe is a convicted rapist, but he isn’t mentally ill and he’s unlikely to commit further sex crimes, Trageser said.
He added, “Every rape is non-consensual. We see nothing extraordinary about Coe. He’ll be 62 soon, and 62-year-olds don’t rape people.”