The stories of Kevin Coe and the dozens of rapes that terrorized Spokane more than a quarter century ago are very much alive today, according to many prospective jurors’ answers Monday in the opening day of juror questioning in Coe’s civil commitment trial.
Coe himself may have changed more than the jury pool’s collective memory. The dapper young man in three-piece suits who was tried for rape in 1981 in Spokane and in 1985 in Seattle has morphed into a frail 61-year-old with a slouch. He was closely guarded by four Spokane County sheriff’s deputies as he entered the courtroom of Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor for the first day of his trial.
In a full day of questions by O’Connor and lawyers for the state attorney general’s office and for Coe, many prospective jurors said they had vivid recollections of Coe’s effect on Spokane.
One longtime Spokane resident said her psychologist husband was in charge of personnel services for Spokane Public Schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s when an unknown assailant dubbed the “South Hill rapist” was striking near bus lines and jogging trails.
“My husband told the (school bus) drivers to watch out for him when they were driving around,” she said, adding that she and her husband were friends of two Spokane Police Department detectives who worked the case.
Coe was arrested in 1981 and charged with six counts of rape; only one case withstood a series of appeals and sent Coe to prison for 25 years. In 2006, just before he was due to be released, the state filed a petition seeking to commit him indefinitely.
Another prospective juror, a Spokane Transit Authority bus driver, said he remembered looking out the window for a furtive jogger along his route, the No. 7 bus to Lincoln Heights.
“I remember I was doing a run on the South Hill in the mornings and I was looking around at different schools,” the STA driver said.
An elderly man, a lifelong Spokane resident, said he’d read the book “Son: A Psychopath and his Victims” by the late journalist Jack Olsen years ago and was “shocked” when he was recently called to jury duty and found out the case he might be sitting on was Coe’s.
A retired Cheney police officer called to jury duty said she’d been a detective during the South Hill rapes and worked the trail of another suspect thought to have been involved in some of the rapes.
When questioned on her objectivity, she replied, “The only thing a jury is supposed to look at is this trial … . This case is totally separate,” she said.
A self-employed real estate consultant said he remembers Coe’s first trials, which took place when he was a child.
The trials were “discussed around the dinner table with my folks. If you lived in Spokane at the time, you would have been aware of it,” he said.
Other themes emerged in Monday’s questioning of two dozen prospective jurors.
Some, including an elementary school teacher and a retired commercial airline pilot, said they couldn’t be impartial and feel Coe should have been sentenced to life on his initial rape conviction.
During the South Hill rapist incidents, “we were living with fear,” the teacher said.
Others, including a retired Eastern Washington University dean and a man who said his sister was sexually assaulted when she was 15, said they are ambivalent about the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Act, passed in 1990 while Coe was in prison. They said it unfairly penalizes people who’ve already paid their debt to society.
“It’s difficult for me to accept that a person who has served his sentence would be committed after that. The person would have to be a true danger” to the community, the former professor said.
Although they were given the option to respond to certain questions privately, several jurors elected to answer highly personal questions about sexual assault and mental health issues in public. In a ruling last week on a motion by Coe’s attorneys to close the courtroom, O’Connor ruled it would remain open except for limited questioning at the jurors’ request. Only three jurors chose the private questioning Monday.
There are 202 people in the jury pool and jury questioning is expected to last into next week.