Alleged serial killer Donna Perry was set to be tried next week for killing three Spokane women more than 25 years ago. The case has since been delayed because of an ethics breach in the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office.
Three attorneys in the office withdrew from the case last April after they discovered at least two investigators in the office may have committed an ethical violation. Their withdrawal set the trial back several months and likely will cost Spokane County hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Prosecutors charged Perry, a transgender woman previously known as Douglas Perry, with murder in January 2014. They accused her of killing Spokane prostitutes Yolanda Sapp, Nickie Lowe and Kathleen Brisbois in 1990. The bodies of the women had been discovered months apart along the banks of the Spokane River. DNA evidence and a pair of panties found in a closet in Perry’s former home on East Empire Avenue linked Perry to the slayings, police said.
The case made national news for the strange assertion Perry made to detectives that the murders may have been carried out by Douglas, the person Perry identified as before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in Thailand in 2000. Perry was also known for refusing to cooperate with detectives, judges and her own attorneys.
Attorneys Kyle Zeller, Nathan Poston and Brooke Hagara had represented Perry before they decided to withdraw from the case. In an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the Public Defender’s Office in July, Hagara alleges the decision to withdraw came after the three discovered office investigator Erica Rivas acting unethically in attempting to discover information related to the case.
According to several employees in the office who spoke on condition of anonymity, Rivas had looked through other attorneys’ case files without permission. Hagara and other employees said lead office investigator Greg Beeman endorsed Rivas’ actions. They also allege that Beeman, after the mishandling of the Perry case, advised other investigators not to share with the attorneys what they were doing on a case.
Beeman declined to comment for this story.
In Hagara’s claim, she wrote, “Withdrawal is a very extreme remedy, and that was the first time in my 12-year-career I’ve had to withdraw due to an ethical violation.” She said that Karen Lindholdt, the office’s chief deputy, estimated the decision to withdraw “would likely cost the office $300,000 to send the case to conflict counsel” on top of what it costs to delay the case.
After the ethical violation was discovered, the director of the Public Defender’s Office, Thomas Krzyminski, supported the decision to withdraw in a meeting with Hagara and the other lawyers. But he also cautioned the three attorneys not to talk with others in the office about the case, Hagara wrote. Other attorneys verified her claim.
In her complaint, Hagara said that Krzyminski mentioned during the meeting that information about the investigators had circulated back to Spokane County Human Resources in an exit interview with a previous employee.
“I left the meeting feeling like I was going to get [sic] be disciplined if I spoke with other lawyers in the office about an ethical violation, even if it was discussed in the context of a union discussion, sharing of information, or getting advice,” she wrote.
In response to these allegations, Lindholdt said she was unable to “comment on details of an ongoing active investigation regarding a county employee.” Rivas was not available for comment.
Court records about the attorneys’ withdrawal are sparse. According to available documents, a motion hearing was held April 28 to discuss the withdrawal, and Hagara’s claim confirms she filed withdrawal orders on the same date. But there was no paperwork available for the hearing, and other documents related to the withdrawal are vague and make no mention as to why the attorneys withdrew.
Perry’s new attorneys are Bryan Whitaker and Pat Donahue, both in private practice, who contract with the county on cases found to have conflict with both the Public Defender’s Office and the Council for Defense. Whitaker and Donahue elected not to discuss the conflict.
But they, along with prosecutor Sharon Hedlund, confirmed the trial would be pushed back, likely several months and as much as a year as the attorneys “basically start over,” Whitaker said. A motion hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Prior to the attorney withdrawal, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office alleged the defense was attempting to assert Robert Lee Yates, a notorious serial killer convicted of killing 13 prostitutes from the area of East Sprague Avenue in the late 1990s, as an alternative suspect.
According to court documents, defense attorney Anna Nordtvedt, who was on the case before Zeller, had filed a public disclosure request for information on Yates. The prosecution caught wind and alleged a conflict of interest because the Public Defender’s Office had represented Yates when he pleaded guilty to all 13 counts.
Prosecutors filed a conflict of interest motion in November 2015. The motion was denied by the court in March on the grounds that Yates was not represented by any of the attorneys on Perry’s case, and that the “Spokane County Public Defender’s Office robust screening process sufficiently prevents confidential information from being accessed by its employees.”
In an email obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request, Hedlund appears to have known about the defense’s ethical violation before they withdrew.
“It blew up in court today,” she wrote to Detective Lyle Johnston at 6:32 p.m. April 28, after the motion hearing. “I was planning on just letting the Court know about another potential conflict while we continued to look into it but all three of the attorneys walked in with motions to withdraw.”
She writes in another email that the “Public Defenders Office was conflicted off the Perry case this afternoon based upon the information relating to Richard Gregory Ross.”
In 1992, Ross was suspected of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after detectives recorded him making arrangements to hire one of his acquaintances to kill two other people. Detectives were working with the acquaintance undercover, and in a bizarre set of circumstances even dressed up the two would-be victims in red makeup and in clothes that police shot with a shotgun to make it look like they had been killed.
Polaroid pictures were taken as “proof,” and police nabbed Ross after he paid the acquaintance for their “murder.” He pleaded down to first-degree rendering criminal assistance after testifying against his cohort, who was in jail, and received a sentence of six months.
It is unclear why the defense was looking into Ross in relation to the Perry case.
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