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Shawn Vestal: Wife’s words threaten public’s confidence in prosecutor

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Should the views of a public official’s spouse matter to the citizens that official was elected to serve?

This is the basic question raised by the case of Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and wife Lesley’s prolific online commentary. But it is no longer the important one.

The important questions arising from the frequent – and frequently nasty – online missives that Lesley Haskell has lobbed have become much more specific: Can the public feel secure that this prosecutor will fairly handle cases upon which his wife has expressed strong, sharply worded views? Can individuals whom the prosecutor’s wife has mocked online expect a vigorous effort from the prosecutor’s office if they are victims of a crime? Could a victim of a hate crime feel secure in the knowledge that Haskell’s office would prosecute their case fully and fairly, despite the fact that Haskell’s wife has made racially ignorant pronouncements? What if Haskell’s wife says that the family members of a murder suspect being prosecuted by her husband are “evil, scum, wastes on society, and should be annihilated”?

Should any of this make us doubt Larry Haskell’s ability to be a fair-minded prosecutor serving the whole community – and not just the riled-up, race-furious Eighth Man?

He says no.

“What she says does not become my view and it does not become the policy of this office,” Haskell told me last week. “This office will prosecute in accordance with the law and the facts, regardless of who the accused is and regardless of who the accuser is.”

Give him credit: He has taken these difficult questions straight on, not hidden from or ignored them. It is a well-nigh impossible position his wife has put him in – imagine the dinner-table conversations at chez Haskell – and he has tried his damnedest to walk a line between asserting a more open-minded attitude while defending his wife’s individuality and right to say what she thinks.

She surely does that. The public’s problem with Lesley Haskell’s online blabber is that it makes it difficult to fully accept Larry Haskell’s assertions of fair-mindedness. The comments were often hidden behind pseudonyms, and some of the digital footprints have been obscured. So the questions surrounding Lesley Haskell’s attitudes, and whether they might poison her husband’s public responsibilities, are not about differing views so much as attitudes and beliefs that lots of people hide or deny.

The Inlander broke the story last month, reporting on Lesley Haskell’s many intemperate, insult-laced comments about favorite right-wing straw men. Under her own name on a closed Facebook group, she boasted about how she’s able to avoid the “disease” of “white guilt.” She adopted a kind of verbal blackface: “Hide ya cops, hide ya grand juries, they protestin everybody up in here.” She stood strong for the poor, beleaguered white person: “Let it be known that Spokane will not give in to the PC police nor give in to NAACP bullying.” She also had plenty to say about Muslims, including: “i do not trust muzlims no matter what.”

Any reason a Muslim American would feel less than 100 percent comfortable with the prosecutor’s office? How about the head of the local NAACP, Rachel Dolezal? Lesley Haskell called her “Sharpton-lite” and said, “She can’t grasp the fact that whites are human beings, victims of crimes, and we hurt too.” Should anyone affiliated with or supportive of the NAACP feel comfy about Larry Haskell’s ability to separate his wife’s views from his own?

Lesley Haskell appears to have commented on issues in which her husband’s office is directly involved. Using Internet protocol addresses, The Spokesman-Review identified several anonymous user names stemming from the same IP address as one that Lesley Haskell used under her own name. The comments, and Larry Haskell’s response to them, were reported by the S-R’s Rachel Alexander.

Those comments, under assumed names, included information about cases Larry Haskell was prosecuting. One of them referred to a courtroom disagreement between the families of Delbert “Shorty” Belton and one of the boys who pleaded guilty in his murder. It said: “Heard the Kinard family was yelling at and flipping off the Belton family and friends. Pieces of vile garbage is too nice. They are evil, scum, wastes on society and should be annihilated.”

The Belton case has become the locus of a lot of racial anger in this community. It’s now operating as a kind of catch-all dog whistle for people who want to dismiss and disregard racism, and change the subject – no matter what the subject is – to their favorite racial narrative: white hero killed by black teens. White people hurt, too. Isn’t it time – the opportunistic appropriators of Shorty’s death assert – that we stopped talking about racism and disparities in justice, and focused on the real victims? The white ones?

Larry Haskell says his wife is an independent, strong, conservative woman. That’s a very husbandly way to put it. She has hung an albatross around his neck, a legitimate reason for the public to question his fair-mindedness and impartiality. It’s a big, dead bird, and despite Larry Haskell’s admirable efforts, it cannot be explained away.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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