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Shawn Vestal: Sgt. Doug Marske, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich step up

When three Spokane men were released from prison and exonerated of felony charges associated with a drug robbery, their defense attorneys took a lot of the heat from the judge.

But it was Sheriff’s Department investigators, and Sgt. Doug Marske in particular, who came in for pointed criticism from others. According to the exonerated men, their attorneys and the team that eventually won the men’s freedom, Marske pressed the case solely on the word of an unreliable informant who got a sweetheart deal; he and prosecutors failed to consider exonerative possibilities and changed details in their allegations when the facts became unfriendly, according to this critique of the case.

Those criticisms were raised in a recent column. Now Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says his department will perform an internal investigation into Marske’s handling of it. Knezovich said Marske sought the internal affairs investigation, as a way of addressing public criticisms.

“When it’s done, we’ll sit down with you and go through the entire investigation,” Knezovich told me this week.

Knezovich and Marske deserve credit for taking this step. It is another example of Knezovich’s approach to criticism and complaint; where some dodge or hide, he often tries to take questions straight and to take them seriously. There is nothing compelling either him or Marske to undertake such an effort other than a desire to address a public controversy in a public way.

And even the most cynical view of the situation – the one that would view any internal investigation as a whitewash – is offset by the fact that, in this case, there are many voices and sources of alternative points of view. A whitewash could always be attempted, but given the number of different voices and the substantial fact record of the court cases, it could only wash so far.

So it seems to me that it shows good faith, on the part of both Knezovich and Marske. Given that Marske is now the head of the department’s Major Crimes Unit, his role is even more important to county residents.

“He’s the one who initially said, ‘Sheriff, I want an (investigation) done,’ ” Knezovich said.

Marske’s role in the case was central. He and investigator Bill Francis, who is now retired, were working a series of drug-related robberies in 2008, and they arrested a couple of suspects. One of the suspects eventually identified three others who allegedly participated in the robberies with him: Paul Statler, Tyler Gassman and Robert Larson.

Prosecutors charged the three men in several cases. In all but one, charges were dismissed or they were acquitted. In one case, though, they were convicted, based solely on the testimony of the “snitch,” whose sentence was reduced dramatically. At trial, Francis acknowledged as much: The case was built entirely on the informant’s testimony.

The men were sentenced to prison, and their appeal failed. The Innocence Project Northwest – a clinic associated with the University of Washington law school – took up their case, assigning a team of attorneys and law students to seek having the convictions overturned. The team found evidence substantiating that the crime occurred April 15, the day for which one of them had an alibi buttressed by time-evidence from work.

Judge Michael Price would later say that alone was enough to cast reasonable doubt on the convictions. He vacated the convictions in December; prosecutors had initially suggested they might try to refile the charges, but they abandoned that effort in June, and the men’s exoneration was complete.

For the men, their defense attorneys and the Innocence Project team, the case stands as an example of what happens when police rely on snitches, and when they don’t test the narratives of those informants skeptically and corroborate with other evidence. As DNA evidence has begun to unearth wrongful convictions around the country, informant testimony – and often informant testimony of dubious credibility – has been a factor in many of the wrongful convictions.

A lot of different parties played a role in the case. Conflicts between prosecutors and defense attorneys turned very personal on occasions, and the battles outlasted this case in particular. But for Gassman, Jordan and Statler, and for Statler’s father, Duane, Marske and prosecutors attracted the lion’s share of the blame.

Knezovich says that’s why Marske sought an internal affairs investigation. He feels his credibility is on the line, and he feels he acted appropriately in that case, and he wants something stronger than his own assertions to try and establish that.

And so we’ll see what it finds. In the meantime, give them credit for not doing what many others in these same circumstances have done: hiding behind “no comment.”

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

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