Defense attorney Chris Bugbee is caught between his current job of defending a double homicide suspect and the stated goals of the prosecutor job he seeks: to ensure that murder suspects serve as long as possible behind bars.
Bugbee, a former deputy Spokane County prosecutor, agreed to defend 22-year-old murder suspect Justin W. Crenshaw more than a year before deciding to run against his former boss, Steve Tucker.
The Crenshaw trial starts Monday, a little more than a month before the Aug. 17 primary election in which Bugbee will square off against fellow Republicans Tucker and David Stevens, Democrat Frank Malone and Jim Reierson, a self-proclaimed “Law and Order” candidate.
Crenshaw is charged with killing 18-year-old Sarah A. Clark and 20-year-old Tanner E. Pehl on Feb. 28, 2008. Last month, Crenshaw questioned Bugbee’s plans to run for prosecutor. But Crenshaw never made the issue into a formal motion and has since said in court that he is fine with Bugbee staying on as his attorney.
“Mr. Crenshaw is entitled to a defense,” Bugbee said last week. “I may be running for prosecutor, but I’m a defense attorney at this point. This does not put me in an awkward position at all. Ethically, morally, practically, there is no issue there.”
His opponents all agree to a point.
“It’s a little bit of an issue,” said Tucker, referring to Crenshaw’s stated concern, “but (Bugbee) is just doing his job defending somebody. I think he has an obligation to stay with this guy. I think his client has had some questions, too: You may be the prosecutor handling the appeal in this case.”
Stevens, who was fired by Tucker after reportedly talking about which deputy prosecutors he would retain if elected, said he knows of no ethical guidelines or rules of conduct that preclude Bugbee from continuing with the Crenshaw case while running for prosecutor.
“It’s an interesting place to be to go around and say you will be tough on crime, but you then defend a notorious murderer,” Stevens said.
But Malone, a longtime defense attorney, had no question at all about Bugbee’s position.
“That, obviously, is our system. Everybody has the right to a defense,” Malone said. “There are any number of good prosecutors who have also been defense attorneys.”
Reierson, who works as a deputy prosecutor in Kootenai County, echoed Malone.
Bugbee “has an obligation to do the best job he can to defend” Crenshaw, Reierson said. “That’s his ethical duty.”
But all the candidates criticized Tucker for not personally prosecuting high-profile cases, as his predecessors James Sweetser and Don Brockett did during their terms in office.
Tucker “hasn’t done any cases in 12 years,” Bugbee said. “(Deputy prosecutors) Larry Steinmetz and Jack Driscoll are fantastic, serious, seasoned lawyers. But absolutely, I would take the most serious or most controversial cases.”
Tucker defended his absence from the courtroom, but added he is helping out on a murder case that is pending.
“None of them have ever managed an office of 140 people,” Tucker said. “It’s hard to prosecute cases. I take one from time to time, but it’s problematic when you manage 140 people. They don’t realize what the job entails because none of them have the management experience that I do.”
But Reierson said voters demand more than just an office manager from the prosecutor position.
“I think the public expects the prosecutor to handle high-profile cases. That doesn’t mean he prosecutes every one of them, … because you still have to run the office,” Reierson said. “But I think the public expects people to be proficient in court. The only way to show that is to handle certain cases.”
Both Malone and Stevens were not sure the Crenshaw case is the type that they would step in to prosecute if elected.
“You have to keep your hand in the prosecuting just as you do with the leadership in the department,” Malone said. “Sometimes people need relief.”
Stevens said he would prosecute certain cases, such as that of former Spokane police Officer Jay Olsen, who was acquitted in 2009 for the 2007 off-duty shooting of Shonto Pete following a drunken chase through downtown Spokane.
“I think the elected prosecutor should handle the cases where the criminal justice system is in question,” Stevens said.
Bugbee said Tucker has not shown leadership through example.
“It creates bad morale if the deputies think their boss isn’t working or doing his part to ensure cases are being prosecuted correctly,” Bugbee said. “If they see the example you set, the office would improve.”