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Judge declares mistrial in sex assault case against former Spokane police officer

June 12, 2017 Updated Mon., June 12, 2017 at 8:13 p.m.

Gordon Ennis (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gordon Ennis (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A judge declared a mistrial in the case against former Spokane police Sgt. Gordon Ennis on Monday, the same day jury selection was expected to begin.

Ennis still faces a second-degree rape charge, and prosecutors are expected to retry him later this year.

His attorney, Rob Cossey, said he requested a mistrial because of a Spokesman-Review story he considers biased toward the prosecution. Spokane County Superior Court Judge James Triplet granted Cossey’s request.

The story, which appeared online Friday and in Saturday’s paper, referred to motions filed by prosecutors that would have restricted what Cossey and witnesses could say in the courtroom.

Prosecutors Kelly Fitzgerald and Kyle Treece demanded that the alleged victim, a fellow police officer, not be called a “slut” in the courtroom. They also motioned to ban references to her sexual history or her “getting what she deserved.”

Although he saw no factual errors in the story, Cossey argued the newspaper’s coverage was unfair, and that it implied he would have disparaged the alleged victim in the courtroom.

In a phone call Monday evening, Cossey said he took no issue with the motion restricting references to the victim. Such motions use “canned” or “boilerplate” language and are common in sexual assault cases, he said.

“I’ve done hundreds of trials and I would never, ever call a sexual assault victim a slut or dig into her sexual history,” Cossey said.

Fitzgerald did not respond to a message left on her office phone before the story was published over the weekend. Larry Haskell, the county’s elected prosecutor, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the mistrial Monday evening.

It is highly unusual to declare a mistrial during jury selection. Mistrials are typically declared later in the process. In court procedure, other options for ensuring a fair trial – such as trying the case in another jurisdiction to avoid a tainted jury – must be implemented before jury selection begins.

The court had summoned an extra-large pool of 120 potential jurors due to the high-profile nature of the case, but Cossey maintained that local media coverage was exerting an unusual degree of influence. More than half of the potential jurors were familiar with the case or had formed opinions about it, he said.

“The number of people hearing about it and thinking about it is pretty dramatic,” Cossey said.

Potential jurors were instructed not to read or watch any news coverage about the case. Cossey said jury misconduct “wasn’t a basis for the mistrial.”

The trial was expected to last two weeks. A new one is scheduled in August, though Cossey said it likely won’t happen then because of common scheduling issues.

Cossey intended to call six witnesses, not including Ennis. Prosecutors intended to call more than 20 witnesses, including guests at the party where the alleged rape occurred, forensic experts and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office detectives who investigated the case.

Ennis was one of several police officers and civilians at a party hosted by Officer Doug Strosahl on Oct. 24, 2015. A female officer, who knew Ennis, reported that she passed out after having several drinks and woke up in a guest bedroom to find Ennis sitting next to her with his hand down her pants, fondling her.

She said that once Ennis realized she was awake, he said, “I’ve gotta go,” and quickly left, according to court documents.

The victim called and texted several people to tell them what had happened, and told Strosahl before she left his home in the morning. Strosahl reportedly told her he didn’t know what to do and then left the room, according to court documents.

The victim was wearing borrowed clothes at the time of the assault, but the clothes were washed before investigators could get a search warrant to request them.

Strosahl was investigated for possible evidence tampering, but he was cleared after his fiancee said that Strosahl went back to bed after he spoke to the victim and she washed the clothes while he was asleep, before she learned of the alleged rape.

A separate case last year accused Sgt. John Gately, then-president of the Spokane Police Guild, of rendering criminal assistance and obstructing a law enforcement officer by tipping off Ennis about a search warrant for the victim’s DNA, giving Ennis time to trim his fingernails before evidence could be collected. The victim’s DNA was, however, found on the seat belt and parking brake of Ennis’ car, according to court documents.

The two felony criminal assistance charges were dismissed, and Gately stood trial on the misdemeanor obstruction charge. The jury deadlocked in favor of acquittal, and the case was not retried.

Earlier this year, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl suspended Gately for four weeks without pay following an internal investigation.

Both Strosahl and Gately were scheduled to testify in Ennis’ trial.

Ennis was placed on paid administrative leave after the rape allegation surfaced. He was placed on unpaid layoff status in December 2015 after felony criminal charges were filed against him.

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