Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker and Democratic challenger Bob Caruso took turns throwing haymakers at their first debate on Monday.
Tucker cited three examples of why he thinks Caruso is an incompetent lawyer, and Caruso described Tucker as ineffective because he spends more time with “drinking buddies” on the golf course than in the courtroom.
Tucker, 56, and Caruso, 68, squared off at a luncheon sponsored by the North Spokane Rotary Club. The two attorneys face each other in the Nov. 7 general election.
“Come on, Tucker – resign before the body count increases and we lose some more of our children’s innocence to the pedophiles you are protecting,” Caruso said after the debate.
Tucker used his closing argument to list three strikes against Caruso: He was fined $7,800 for filing a frivolous lawsuit in 2000 against former Spokane Mayor John Powers, Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly ripped Caruso for incompetence during a 2004 trial and Caruso was admonished in August by the Washington Bar Association for telling a “racist” joke in front of a black jailer, Tucker said.
“That’s not the kind of person you want as your prosecutor,” Tucker said. “You want someone with police experience and prosecution experience.”
Most of the discussion focused on the investigations into the Jan. 29 death of inmate Benites S. Sichiro inside the Spokane County Jail, the March 18 fatal confrontation between Spokane police and 36-year-old Otto Zehm and the Feb. 10 incident in which Spokane firefighter Daniel W. Ross had sex with a 16-year-old girl at Fire Station 17.
Tucker has yet to decide whether jailers or Spokane police officers should face charges in the in-custody deaths. Therefore, he said, the rules of professional conduct prohibit him from discussing those cases.
However, Tucker could talk about the firefighter sex scandal because he chose to clear Ross after Spokane police detectives directed the firefighter to delete digital photographs Ross had taken of the girl during their sexual encounter.
“When the pictures are deleted, we just don’t have much to go with,” he said. “There is a huge age difference, which is wrong. But she is of legal age.”
Caruso ripped Tucker’s decision on the firehouse case and accused him of waffling on the Zehm case.
“Mr. Tucker has shown a lack of knowledge of the two homicides and dances around the question of any investigation in these cases,” Caruso said. “He just doesn’t have a clue about what is going on in his office. And I believe that’s a direct response from his … being on the golf course.”
Tucker, who has served the last eight years as prosecutor, said the only explicit photo, according to police reports, did not include the girl’s face. “So, it still would have been tough. But all the rest (of the photos) were of her in fireman garb, hat, coat and smiling. No stress, no force, no case.”
Caruso accused Tucker, a former Washington State Patrol trooper, of having a double standard, meaning he won’t charge officers for the same crimes for which he files charges against regular citizens.
“It’s difficult for him to prosecute his friends and what I consider his drinking buddies or his golfing buddies,” Caruso said. “And if I’m being unduly hard on you Mr. Tucker, I believe you deserve it.”
Tucker responded by saying he doesn’t have a double standard. He pointed to the charges filed last week against longtime WSP Trooper Mark Haas for felony unlawful imprisonment and official misconduct for his actions involving two women during a traffic stop.
“I know what it’s like to be a police officer. So, I bring that to the table,” Tucker said. “But I don’t treat them special.”
Caruso said the community wants someone held responsible for the death of Zehm, a mentally ill janitor who died two days after he was hogtied by several officers.
“If they didn’t have videos on this Zehm case, how would it have been handled?” Caruso asked.
On March 18, Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks said the use of force by the officers was justified and later described Zehm as lunging at the first officer. “But those things weren’t borne out and our acting chief Nicks had to recant those (statements) when the videos came out,” Caruso said.
As for the joke in front of the jailer on April 4, 2005, Caruso refused Monday to retell the joke, saying the bar association had prohibited him from repeating it.
“While you were in the jail, you told a story/joke in the presence of a corrections officer and others that included a term commonly regarded as a racial stereotype,” according to disciplinary board files. “The corrections officer was an African American and was offended by the language in the joke.”
Caruso said he later apologized to the jailer for his “insensitive comment,” which the bar association ruled “could be construed as evidencing prejudice or bias.” It also ruled that Caruso’s joke violated the rules of professional conduct.
In response to questions about the admonishment, Caruso faxed The Spokesman-Review several letters from minority residents in Spokane who thanked him for representing them.
“The letters speak for themselves as to my commitment to justice for minorities and my professionalism,” Caruso wrote on the fax.