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Sunday, March 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Appellate judges accuse Spokane prosecutor of ‘flagrant’ constitutional error in trial of convicted stabber

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 27, 2020

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell speaks at a court hearing in July 2019. Haskell said Thursday he’d instructed his team not to elicit the same type of testimony that led appellate judges to admonish a former member of his staff for violating the constitutional rights of a defendant in a 2014 stabbing. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell speaks at a court hearing in July 2019. Haskell said Thursday he’d instructed his team not to elicit the same type of testimony that led appellate judges to admonish a former member of his staff for violating the constitutional rights of a defendant in a 2014 stabbing. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane County prosecutor committed “a flagrant error of constitutional proportions” when she allowed a psychiatrist to accuse a man defending himself on assault charges of lying, appellate judges ruled earlier this month.

A united panel of judges upheld the 14-year prison sentence for Bruce N. Lang, 32, finding testimony that he didn’t stab another man in the back in a Spokane alley in September 2014 “patently not credible.” The psychiatrist’s testimony wasn’t the only thing that would have convinced the jury of Lang’s guilt, the judges ruled in upholding the conviction.

In a 10-page opinion issued Feb. 20, Judges Rebecca Pennell, Laurel Siddoway and George Fearing admonished the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Deputy Prosecutor Gayle Ervin and Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary for permitting the psychiatrist, William Grant, to say Lang’s rambling statement in his defense showed signs of “faking.” That conclusion is for a jury to determine, not expert witnesses, the judges argued, and the statement violated Lang’s right to a fair trial.

In response to questions on the opinion, Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell forwarded an email he’d sent to his staff to review the opinion.

“Please read this opinion and never elicit this form of testimony at trial,” Haskell’s email to his staff reads. “It constitutes a constitutional-level violation that could result in a reversal and possible sanctions against the offending Deputy Prosecutor. Supervisors, please include this case in your training.”

Haskell said Ervin retired from the office a few months ago. He said in a phone call that sharing the ruling was a good lesson to his younger attorneys.

Lang had been arrested a year after the incident, and had given a confession to police that was played for jurors. Lang argued on the stand that statement was coerced and that he’d been poisoned by law enforcement, according to court records.

The jury convicted Lang of first-degree assault and robbery, as he’d stolen the victim’s bicycle and rolling suitcase following the assault. He’s serving his prison sentence in the Special Offenders Unit at Monroe Correctional Center, according to prison records.

Despite leaving the conviction in place, the judges took the additional step of warning the Prosecutor’s Office to cease making similar arguments.

“The State is cautioned that the mistake committed here should not be repeated in future cases,” the judges wrote.

Greg Link, an attorney with the Seattle-based nonprofit Washington Appellate Project that represented Lang in his appeal, called the opinion “a very strongly worded admonition.” But he said it was unclear whether there would be an incentive for prosecutors to stop engaging in that strategy, because Lang will remain behind bars.

“I would hope it brings change,” Link said.

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