January 9, 2011 in City

Felony charge in Spokane ended in death

Alleged theft of $23 in gas put man in cell with killer
By The Spokesman-Review

Another Spokane case where prosecutors used their discretion to charge a misdemeanor theft as a more serious felony robbery ended in tragedy in 2004.

That year, Spokane County prosecutors charged 21-year-old Christopher Rentz with second-degree robbery after they claimed he assaulted a gas station clerk during the theft of $23 worth of gas. Because he was charged with a felony, he was placed in jail with a cellmate who had a violent past – and who strangled Rentz.

Spokane County later paid Rentz’s family $180,000 to settle a $4.9 million federal civil rights lawsuit.

Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer, who initially represented Rentz, said the 21-year-old had gone to a gas station with his mother and pumped gas before realizing he had forgotten his credit card. He told the clerk he was leaving his mother at the station while he left to retrieve the card. But when the clerk objected and grabbed for the ignition, Rentz reached out and pushed the clerk’s hands away, Finer said.

Because he pushed the clerk’s hand, it was deemed “force or threat of force,” which is necessary to turn a misdemeanor theft charge into a felony robbery case.

“That discretion is really broad,” Finer said. “It would have been a very defensible case. But we never got the chance.”

Deputy Prosecutor Mark Lindsey, without referring specifically to any case, said prosecutors try to determine what charge best fits the crime.

“We cannot charge a crime unless we believe the evidence supports that crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “It’s a very heavy burden that dictates what we can or cannot charge.”

After Rentz’s arrest, he was placed in a cell with Michael L. West, who was charged with rape and kidnapping, and Brandon W. Martin, who had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to charges of killing two men in Mead in 2002.

West and Martin had just finished watching a DVD of “The Passion of the Christ” before assaulting Rentz with a broom handle, according to court records. West was convicted of killing Rentz and Martin was convicted of rendering criminal assistance.

West currently faces new charges after witnesses say he attacked another cellmate in October, gouging out one of that man’s eyes.

Finer said Rentz’s second-degree robbery charge in 2004 resulted in a high bail.

“If (Rentz) had a bail range that he could have afforded, he would not have been imprisoned with Michael West,” Finer said.

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