Local news

Judge bans ‘South Hill rapist’ label

Use in Coe trial would be unfair, she says

State prosecutors in convicted rapist Kevin Coe’s civil commitment trial won’t be able to refer to him as the “South Hill rapist.”

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor granted a defense motion Thursday seeking to prohibit the use of that moniker to refer to Coe, who was charged in 1981 with six rapes of women on the South Hill and served a 25-year prison sentence on the one conviction that withstood a retrial and a series of appeals.

His lawyers had argued in a series of pretrial motions that the label would be unfair to Coe because he was convicted of only one rape. In the civil commitment trial, the state has to prove he has a mental abnormality that makes him likely to rape again.

Lawyers for the attorney general’s office and for Coe also clashed on whether any appeals to the jury to convict Coe as a violent sexual predator to make the community “safer” would be allowed.

“Pleas to juries to make us all safe shouldn’t be allowed,” said Tim Trageser, Coe’s lead lawyer.

Assistant Attorney General Malcom Ross disagreed, saying the “primary purpose” of the state’s 1990 Sexually Violent Predator Act was to protect the public. “There isn’t any reason to keep the jury in the dark about that,” Ross said.

But O’Connor ruled that “you’ll feel safer” language isn’t appropriate. Prosecutors can’t appeal to jurors’ sense of personal safety, she said.

“You can’t say it in a criminal context, and it’s not appropriate here either. The state has to prove the defendant is likely to reoffend,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor granted the state’s request to allow psychologist Amy Phenix to tell jurors that Coe refused sexual offender treatment in prison and at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, a mental facility for sexual offenders where Coe has been held since his prison sentence ended in 2006. Coe’s lawyers had sought to bar that testimony.

“I think it’s fair for her to say he didn’t accept treatment. That’s the facts,” O’Connor said.

Trageser also complained that potential witness Virginia “Ginny” Perham, Coe’s live-in girlfriend when he was arrested on charges of the six rapes in 1981, has refused to respond to a defense subpoena and cannot be located.

Perham testified in Coe’s 1981 trial, but an appeals court said her testimony on Coe’s sexual habits shouldn’t have been allowed, Trageser said.

The problem is, Trageser said, the state wants to admit Perham’s testimony on Coe’s sexual habits because of its relevancy to Phenix’s conclusions that Coe is likely to reoffend.

Although ordered to appear by the state, Perham refused to attend a deposition for the civil commitment trial, the lawyers said. Also, she failed to respond to a defense subpoena signed by O’Connor in July.

Trageser said his legal team tried to locate Perham at the RV park where she lives and was told she was “in transit” and couldn’t be served with the subpoena. A related court document said she likely is in Alaska.

“It does appear she’s not going to testify,” O’Connor said.

Also Thursday, individual questioning of prospective jurors continued for the fourth day. There will be more questions Monday and Tuesday and group questioning will begin Wednesday, O’Connor said.

Nearly 80 people in the 200-person jury pool have been questioned. About 34 jurors have been excused, some because they have work and school conflicts and others because they’ve said they cannot be impartial for a variety of reasons, including personal experiences with sexual abuse and mental problems and feelings of fear about the rapes that terrorized Spokane more than a quarter century ago.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or at karend@spokesman.com.

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