Candidates for Spokane County prosecutor in a debate this week gave current prosecutor Steve Tucker a mixed report card on his charging decisions and professional conduct in several recent, high-profile cases.
Throughout their campaigns and in the debate, both have criticized Tucker for his low public profile and failing to fully explain his decisions, some of which they questioned. On at least one case, however, the two agreed the 16-year officeholder got it right.
Tucker correctly charged Gail Gerlach, a man who shot and killed Brendan Kaluza-Graham through the rear window of Gerlach’s fleeing SUV in March 2013, with manslaughter, said candidates Larry Haskell and Breean Beggs, at the debate which was filmed Monday and aired Thursday on KSPS television. The acquittal, and finding of self-defense that has saddled taxpayers with a $220,000 bill for attorney’s fees, came as a result of shifting testimonies and legal rulings suppressing statements, the candidates said.
“In this particular case, I am aware of the fact there were some statements made by the defendant, Mr. Gerlach, that were suppressed by the court,” Haskell said. “That is not something that can necessarily be foreseen.”
“The challenge was, by the time we got to trial, the police had not really nailed down the defendants to the statements clearly,” Beggs said.
Both men said they supported the manslaughter charge based on the investigation.
Democrat Beggs and Republican Haskell have run a campaign focusing on reforms to the criminal justice system. Both have embraced all or portions of the Blueprint for Reform, a set of changes to criminal justice policies in the courts, jails and elsewhere that Beggs helped draft.
But during the debate, which was filmed Tuesday and aired Thursday on KSPS television, the candidates were asked to address specific cases that have raised public eyebrows. That included Tucker’s acceptance of an 8-week sentence for Preston Maher, the 17-year-old who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in the deaths of two classmates, McKenzie Mott and Josie Freier, while recklessly driving a stretch of Spokane Valley road in an attempt to “get air” in October 2013.
Both candidates said that’s not the sentence they would have asked for, but deferred to Judge Michael Price’s decision to accept the sentence that was less than the law allowed.
Freier’s father criticized Tucker at the sentencing, saying the prosecutor couldn’t name the victims. Both Haskell and Beggs also said that was unacceptable.
“That would have to change in my office,” Beggs said.
“I would certainly agree that the elected prosecutor should know more about the case,” Haskell said.
The candidates were asked if they would have handled the discipline and eventual resignation of deputy prosecutor Marriya Wright differently than Tucker. Wright was under federal investigation for several months on suspicions she aided the flight of convicted felon Matthew Baumrucker earlier this year after a warrant had been issued for his arrest. She faces a charge in Spokane County District Court of rendering criminal assistance and resigned from the office this summer.
Haskell said the office’s hands were tied by the FBI’s involvement and the need to avoid violating rules of professional conduct.
“As far as what I would have done in this case, absent the FBI, I would have gone forward and told what I could, but no more than the rules and due process allow,” he said.
Beggs said the issue came down to transparency and the public’s right to know.
“The elected prosecutor, we’re accountable to the voters of Spokane,” he said. “They deserved to know more about what was going on, earlier, and what was being done to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Haskell topped Beggs in the primary, 58 percent to 42 percent. Video of the debate is available on the KSPS website, ksps.org.
Editor’s note: Reporter Kip Hill served as a panelist for the KSPS debate between Haskell and Beggs.
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