October 31, 2009 in City

County balks at case transfer

Stevens may foot bill for death penalty trial
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The death penalty case against Christopher H. Devlin has turned into a disagreement over who should pay for his costly trial.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque has twice ruled on where the trial should be held. First in 2008, Leveque ordered the case to remain in Spokane County after Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz argued that the May 2008 killing of a 52-year-old Chattaroy man was planned and carried out in Spokane County, where the body also was found.

But testimony from a co-defendant, who has been given a promise of lesser charges in exchange, indicated that the killing took place in Stevens County. Leveque ruled last month that the new evidence triggered a law that says a defendant can choose where he or she is tried if the alleged crime is committed in two or more counties.

Devlin, 56, has chosen Stevens County to hear his first-degree murder case in the shooting death of Daniel D. Heily, who disappeared the night before he was scheduled to testify against Devlin at a trial scheduled for May 14, 2008.

Still unclear is how that trial, scheduled for next March, will take place.

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Dale Nagy said this week that his interpretation of Leveque’s ruling is that the entire case will now transfer to Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen.

“At this point, the judge has not finalized how he will execute the change of venue,” Nagy said. “It’s still up in the air who will prosecute. Once venue goes to Stevens County, absent any other orders … Stevens County would pick up the bill at that point.”

Rasmussen said his understanding of the same ruling is that Leveque wants Spokane County prosecutors to take their case to Colville to be heard by a Stevens County jury.

“Right now Stevens County is facing a $1.2 million shortfall in the budget,” Rasmussen said. “I have no doubt that the defense cost of Mr. Devlin and the costs to prosecute this case would be a serious blow to the solvency of Stevens County.”

In the earlier case against Devlin, Heily told detectives that on Aug. 2, 2007, Devlin unlawfully entered Heily’s home on North Hardesty Road in Spokane County and assaulted him, knocking out some of his teeth.

Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Mike Ricketts investigated that earlier case and charged Devlin with first-degree burglary and second-degree assault. But Heily didn’t show up for court on the day of the trial. He was found dead May 16, 2008, in the cab of his pickup behind a liquor store in Deer Park. Heily had been shot six times.

Following an investigation, detectives charged Devlin and 57-year-old Carl A. Hoskins with aggravated first-degree murder.

Hoskins has since agreed to testify against Devlin in exchange for a lowered charge from aggravated first-degree murder to second-degree assault, rendering criminal assistance and intimidating a witness. In exchange, Hoskins has been released from jail.

As part of the agreement, Hoskins won’t enter his plea to the amended charges until after the Devlin trial, Nagy said.

Rasmussen said the entire case has been investigated by Spokane County sheriff’s detectives, who say the crime was planned and the body discovered in Spokane County. So he’s puzzled, he said, about why Nagy and Steinmetz would be willing to give up the case.

He noted that a similar death penalty case in Okanogan County cost about $750,000 to take to trial.

“Why entrust such an important case to a county with so few resources? That’s interesting,” Rasmussen said. “Usually, prosecuting attorney offices strive to keep cases, especially important cases. But here the reverse is true. It’s a mess.”

Nagy said his office doesn’t have a preference for how Leveque proceeds.

“He could keep the prosecutors in place. It can get a little complex,” Nagy said.

Besides the disagreement over which county will pay for the trial, court-appointed defense attorney Roger Hunko, of Port Orchard, Wash., has other concerns with the case.

Hunko said a legal fight surrounding Spokane serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. determined that the prosecutor in the county where the killings took place should decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker declined in 2000 to seek the death penalty against Yates in exchange for his confessions in slayings in Spokane and elsewhere. Yates confessed to 13 killings, including 10 in Spokane, and he received a sentence of 408 years in prison.

However, Pierce County Prosecutor John Ladenburg charged Yates with two killings there, arguing that he never gave Tucker permission to bargain over the Pierce County killings. In that 2002 trial, Yates received the death penalty.

Hunko has filed two motions asking Leveque to dismiss the death penalty against Devlin.

First, he argues that Rasmussen should have been the one to seek the death penalty based on the Yates case.

Secondly, Hunko alleges that Spokane County prosecutors have manipulated the jurisdiction in the case so they could seek the death penalty, which would be a violation of Devlin’s civil rights. Arguments on those motions will be heard Nov. 20.

Hunko said detectives learned from Hoskins, the co-defendant, that the killing allegedly took place in Stevens County months before Steinmetz argued at a September 2008 hearing that detectives had no evidence the killing took place there.

“A year later, we learned that the Spokane County detective had that information (about where the killing took place) prior to the signing of the notice to seek the death penalty,” Hunko said. “Either (Detective) Ricketts didn’t turn it over or Steinmetz knew about it and said otherwise. We want to find out why.”

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