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Opinion

Thu., Jan. 15, 2009

Our View: Errors like one made by prosecutor imperil rights

The judge arrived Monday morning expecting to preside over a home-invasion trial involving four suspects. Defense attorneys were set. The suspects, after spending months in jail, would get their day in court. So would victims. A jury empaneled last week was ready to go.

Then Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz dropped a bombshell. He was amending the charges to show that the crimes were committed April 17, not April 15. He had known about the error since last fall but failed to notify defense attorneys. Two of the suspects have strong alibis for the original date in the charges. Attorneys prepared their case with that in mind.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen had no choice but to push back the trial. It will now begin Feb. 2. She also had to dismiss the jury and will have to empanel a new one. Monday was a big waste of time all the way around, and so she ordered the prosecutor’s office to pay defense attorneys $8,000 for the additional work they must now do.

In addition, Eitzen must now consider a defense motion to dismiss the case altogether. That would be a shame, because serious crimes are alleged: drive-by shooting, first-degree assault, attempted first-degree murder and first-degree robbery.

While Eitzen acknowledged the large caseloads prosecutors must carry, she rightly refused to let their office off the hook for this avoidable error. The integrity of the criminal justice system would take a huge hit if prosecutors were allowed to commit egregious errors and then blame them on budgeting shortfalls. Judges and defense counsel could never be sure whether such errors were accidental or intentional.

The effects of this mistake will be compounded if a jury finds that any or all of the suspects are not guilty. It will mean they could have been freed from jail almost three weeks sooner.

Jack Driscoll, the county’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, noted that the penalty was “highly unusual” and that his office might ask the judge to reconsider. Well, we’d hope that such case mismanagement is also unusual, which would explain the rarity of the sanction. The office ought to just take its lumps and redouble its commitment to sound legal practices.

Upholding the rights of the accused is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system. Judge Eitzen showed that she understands that.



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