Olsen trial set to begin Monday
The early-morning shooting of a fleeing man in Peaceful Valley took place two years ago. The trial has been postponed five times. But suspended Spokane police Officer James “Jay” Olsen will finally be tried this week.
Olsen, 45, a 16-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department, was charged with first-degree assault and two counts of reckless endangerment after a chase Feb. 26, 2007, that ended in the shooting of Shonto Pete, 29. Both men were drunk, according to court documents.
Pete was shot in the head; the bullet lodged in his scalp. Several other bullets allegedly fired from the off-duty officer’s mini-Glock pistol whizzed through Peaceful Valley as residents slept. A few hours later, Olsen was placed on administrative leave.
In December, Pete filed a $750,000 claim against the city, a first step toward a lawsuit against Spokane and Olsen for what he contends was a violation of his civil rights. Resolution of that claim was pending.
Olsen told police investigators he feared for his life because he thought Pete had a gun. He also said he was nearly always armed with his personal weapon when not on duty.
“I feel naked without a gun,” he told Police Department Detective Kip Hollenbeck in a March 1, 2007, interview. Pete was unarmed, except for a small pocketknife.
Olsen accused Pete of driving away in his truck after the bars closed in downtown Spokane. Pete said he’d asked Olsen for a ride and was rebuffed, and that Olsen started following him in the truck as Pete fled on foot.
Prosecutors charged Pete with second-degree theft, then offered him a plea deal for third-degree theft. He rejected the deal.
A Spokane County Superior Court jury acquitted Pete of the theft charge in October 2007. The presiding juror said the state hadn’t proven its case and that there was no evidence Pete had been in Olsen’s truck.
David Partovi, Pete’s lawyer, asserted in the weeks leading to Pete’s trial that his client had been charged too high and Olsen too low because of favoritism toward police officers by the prosecutor’s office.
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz countered that Olsen was charged appropriately and any comparison between Olsen’s and Pete’s charges amounted to “apples and oranges.”
Olsen briefly took the stand in Pete’s case, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He declined to answer any questions about the shooting, which started just before 4 a.m. on West Riverside Avenue above Peaceful Valley.
Under cross-examination from Partovi, Olsen said he made two calls that night – to his police guild representative and his lawyer – and didn’t call 911 or police dispatchers during the confrontation.
Olsen was given his Miranda warnings Feb. 26 and interviewed two days later in the office of his lawyer, Robert Cossey. Cossey opposed a request by two police detectives for an interview with Olsen a few hours after the incident because, he said, Olsen was drunk.
Cossey “stated that because of Olsen’s condition, he felt it was in best interests to postpone the interview until Olsen was in better condition,” according to a report by Spokane County Deputy Sheriff Mike Ricketts.
Pete was interviewed in the intensive care unit of Sacred Heart Medical Center hours after he’d been shot.
When he took the stand, Pete said he thought the sheriff’s deputies who interviewed him were trying to protect Olsen. They seemed more interested in questioning him about Olsen’s truck than about who shot him, he said.
Olsen remains on “unpaid layoff status” pending the outcome of his trial. The Spokane City Council voted in February 2008 not to use city funds to defend him because he was off duty during the shooting. Pete’s lawyer, Blake Horwitz of Chicago, says that won’t let the city off the hook for Olsen’s actions.
Olsen has remained free on $25,000 bond as Cossey obtained several delays in his trial date – including a nine-month continuance last year. Cossey told Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark he needed more time to prepare because Olsen faces 15 years in prison. Partovi called the delay “unprecedented,” noting the contrast with Pete’s swift trial.
Olsen’s trial was delayed again in December at the request of the Spokane County prosecutor’s office. Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz, who was working on the homicide-by-abuse trial of Jonathan Lytle, said he needed more time to finish interviewing defense witnesses.
Court documents show Cossey plans to call an expert to testify about Olsen’s state of mind on the evening of the shooting.
Massad Ayoob, of Live Oak, Fla., will testify about how officers are trained to act in dangerous circumstances.
The state has listed more than 60 potential witnesses, including Pete and his wife, Vanessa Pete, several Peaceful Valley residents and many of the law enforcement officers who investigated the incident.
A panel of 75 Spokane County residents will be brought in for jury selection, which is likely to begin Tuesday in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Jerome J. Leveque.
Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.