Spokane County’s insurer will pay $2.25 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office engaged in witness-tampering and recklessness to wrongfully convict three men accused of a 2008 robbery.
The deal drew the ire of Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
“I was totally against the settlement,” he said. “I told them this had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. They didn’t have a case. If they would have had a case they wouldn’t have settled.”
The agreement reached Tuesday followed mediation between the Washington Counties Risk Pool, which insures Spokane County, and Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman and Paul Statler.
The three men were convicted of several felonies on the word of jailhouse informants who implicated the trio in an April 15, 2008, robbery. All three spent four years behind bars.
Two of the men had an alibi for the date of the robbery, but on the day of their trial, prosecutor Eugene Cruz changed the date of the crime from April 15 to April 17, 2008, voiding their alibis. That last-minute switch prompted Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen to sanction Cruz and order him to pay a fine.
All three men were convicted of robbery, assault and drive-by shooting. A judge sentenced Gassman to 26 years, Statler to 41 1/2 years and Larsen to 20 years in prison.
One of the informants, Anthony Kongchunji, later said in a written confession that he and another man had conspired to falsely implicate the trio. Kongchunji, who admitted his involvement in the crime, pleaded guilty in the case. Despite the confession, the Washington State Court of Appeals upheld the trio’s convictions.
The men agreed to settle the lawsuit against Spokane County, in part, to avoid a lengthy civil trial and appeal process, their attorney Micah LeBank said. “I don’t think any amount of money will compensate them for their loss,” he said. “There was a value to them in concluding this chapter and moving forward.”
While an agreement has been reached, the settlement paperwork has not yet been finalized, LeBank said.
An internal Sheriff’s Office investigation into the case was conducted by Sgt. Tim Hines. He wrote in his report that the investigation “could have been more thorough” and “mistakes and assumptions” were made. Detectives should have reinterviewed key witnesses and obtained cellphone records, he wrote. They also accepted statements from witnesses “with obvious credibility issues … with little or no effort made to confirm their veracity.”
Knezovich said the investigation was launched after one of the defense attorneys alleged that Det. Doug Marske, one of the investigators in the case, lied.
“We looked into that,” Knezovich said. “We found no untruthfulness.”
Knezovich said Hines uncovered nothing more than some “work product issues.”
“Detective Marske, at the time, could have written a few more reports and clarified a few things,” he said. “There’s no evidence whatsover that the detectives did anything maliciously wrong.”
Attorneys from the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic took the men’s case and brought up new evidence, including phone and work records. Their convictions were vacated in December 2012 by Superior Court Judge Michael Price, who was critical of errors made by defense attorneys in the case.
Knezovich said he wanted to argue the new “so-called” evidence in court and said he believes the phone records proved that the men were guilty. “I just truly don’t believe justice was served,” he said.
Superior Court Judge John Cooney ruled in April that the men were “actually innocent” and eligible to receive compensation under a state law that allows payments to be made to those wrongfully convicted.
The lawsuit settlement is monetary only and doesn’t include any request for changes in the Sheriff’s Office. LeBank noted that the two detectives who investigated the case no longer work for the department.
Knezovich said it doesn’t matter that the detectives don’t work in his office anymore. “Everybody wants to say these are business decisions,” he said of the settlement. “Tell that to the deputies that are involved in these things. They feel like they’re not being supported. It’s still their reputations and, quite frankly, the legacy of their careers. It makes it look like they did something wrong.”
The three men have worked to move forward after losing four years of their lives, LeBank said. All have jobs and families now and will likely use part of the settlement, which will be split among them, to buy homes, he said.
“I think they were very courageous in bringing the claim,” he said. “It came out that what happened was wrong and could have been prevented through good police practices. We always hope that these types of lawsuits bring about positive change.”
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