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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane suspect, 72, has waited 30 months in jail as his attorneys keep quitting

The Spokane County Jail, shown June 28, 2018, is a modern building that sits behind the Public Safety Building and the Spokane County Courthouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A 72-year-old Spokane man has remained in the Spokane County Jail for more than 30 months without having a trial despite his handwritten pleas to finally have his case heard. It has been handed off to a succession of public defenders.

William B. Mitchell was booked into jail on Jan. 25, 2017, on charges of first-degree robbery and second-degree assault for an incident that occurred in the parking lot of the Walmart at 2301 W. Wellesley Ave. in Spokane. While the charges are serious, investigators allege that Mitchell essentially served as the getaway driver and that his alleged deadly weapon was a Subaru.

Mitchell also is facing a third strike prosecution, meaning that if he is convicted as charged, he would spend the rest of his life in prison. In this current case, he’s had three previous attorneys who quit the case for different reasons. The fourth public defender, Heather Weir, wrote in a motion that she, too, will be quitting soon.

“Mr. Mitchell’s trial date has been continued 21 times despite his objections and is currently set for Aug. 26, 2019,” Weir wrote. “To date, no defense interviews have been completed. There have been no motions filed on Mr. Mitchell’s behalf. No substantive investigation has occurred on this matter and Mr. Mitchell remains in custody.”

Drone and dash

According to court records, William and Martha Taylor had just purchased a drone for $148, before tax, at the Walmart near Shadle Park High School on the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2017. The couple was in the process of putting the drone into their car when a green Subaru drove up behind them.

A man, later identified as Joseph O. Burnett, 32, grabbed the drone from the Taylors’ shopping cart and then quickly got into the Subaru. William Taylor jumped on the hood of the car to try to stop the theft. He eventually fell off the car and reported pain in his knees but medics found no obvious broken bones or visible injuries, according to court records.

Spokane police Officer Frank Erhart located Mitchell and his Subaru behind a home at 908 W. Spofford Ave. Mitchell denied knowing that Burnett was going to steal the drone and essentially said he panicked when Burnett yelled at him to “Get out of here.”

Another officer arrested Mitchell for first-degree robbery “since he took part in the stealing of the drone by being a getaway driver and using his vehicle as a weapon to cause bodily injury to William” Taylor.

Burnett, the drone thief, later pleaded guilty to second-degree theft and second-degree robbery, and Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno sentenced him in May 2018 to more than five years in prison. But the more serious charges against Mitchell remained.

Revolving door

At various times, the case has been handled by Todd Porter, who later resigned; David Loebach, who later resigned from his job as a public defender; and Nate Poston, who quit, according to court records.

Weir got the case this month, but she said that she, too, will be resigning. As a result, Mitchell’s case languishes in the system as he writes letters to anyone in the court system who will pay attention.

“I’ve been in the county (jail) for something somebody else did and admitted to,” Mitchell wrote in June. “For the third time in 2 1/2 years, my new public defender has transferred from that office. There is nobody to schedule hearing dates for those motions. I have gotten no response from the public defenders office!”

He pleaded with trial court administrators to have someone help him with his case.

“After nearly 2 1/2 years, the public defenders office hasn’t accomplished anything in my case!” Mitchell wrote. “None of my defense witnesses have been listed or subpoenaed! None of my requested motions have been acted on!”

In the motion, Weir confirmed the lack of work on Mitchell’s case and blamed the delays on the “revolving door” in her own office.

“In the present case, there is resounding evidence of governmental misconduct on behalf of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office,” Weir wrote. “The lengthy delay of Mr. Mitchell’s case and violation of his right to a speedy trial is a direct result of institutional mismanagement constituting a systemic breakdown.”

Tom Krzyminski, director of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office, disputed some of the allegations in Weir’s declaration and said he plans to address them at a hearing on Thursday before Superior Court Judge Julie McKay.

“There are facts that are not correct in there,” he said referring to Weir’s motion. “Our attorneys work hard for their clients. I have no reason to believe that these attorneys have not, and did not, work hard for Mr. Mitchell. I realize he is in a very tough situation.”

He said the case is complicated because Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Gayle Ervin is seeking to convict Mitchell on a third-strike case.

“Mr. Mitchell is looking at the rest of his life in prison if he is convicted,” Krzyminski said. “Attorneys tend to move very cautiously in that situation.”

As for the 21 times the case has been delayed, he said, “What I do know is that every one of those continuances was agreed to and signed by the judge. It does affect the clients and I feel terrible about that. But in each case we do our best to make sure they are represented.”

Krzyminski said he also believes the charges don’t fit the crime. He acknowledged that Mitchell has a bank robbery conviction from 1972 and a past conviction for second-degree robbery that is not related to the current case.

“He did not speed away and plow someone down,” Krzyminksi said of the drone incident. “It was a fairly slow movement out of the parking lot. People were on the car trying to stop him from leaving. Obviously, the prosecutor has a different perspective on the case.”

Contacted Wednesday, Ervin, the prosecutor, said the case remains pending and declined to comment as a result.

But even if the crime occurred as charged, Krzyminski questioned why Mitchell has remained incarcerated on a $100,000 bond.

“Does this individual need to be in jail pending this case? He’s a 72-year-old man. He’s presumed innocent,” he said. “Is there a way to release him with electronic monitoring? They put the blame on us … but did he have to be held on such a high bond? There are lots of issues here.”

For whatever reason, Krzyminski said Mitchell should not have waited this long to get justice.

“There’s always outliers out there. We hate to see them happen,” he said, “but all the attorneys here work very hard for their clients.”