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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Judge denies motion to remove Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell from case based in part on wife’s racist comments

Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell holds a news conference earlier this year at the Public Safety Building to address fallout from his wife’s racist comments on social media.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A Spokane attorney’s attempt to remove Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell from a case because of his wife’s racist comments as well as racial disparities in charging was blocked by a judge on Wednesday.

Steve Graham motioned for an independent prosecutor to take over the resentencing of Thomas Butler, who is Black.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Preston McCollam told the court Graham’s motion was “political gamesmanship” and argued the problem with racial disparity in the criminal justice system is “upstream” from the prosecutor’s office.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Julie McKay ruled against Graham’s motion on the basis that he failed to connect Haskell to the charging decision in the Butler cases or draw a connection to the broader charging process of the prosecutor’s office.

A January article in the Inlander exposed numerous racist social media posts by Lesley Haskell, the prosecutor’s wife. Those posts included racial slurs and her admission to being a “proud white nationalist.”

The next month, Larry Haskell apologized for his wife’s comments and said he has never tolerated “racial bias or discrimination in any form.”

Activists argued that the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office and Haskell have a clear bias against people of color, pointing to disparities in charging and incarceration.

In his motion, Graham argued that Butler was unfairly targeted with firearms enhancements when charged with numerous crimes related to a 2009 home-invasion robbery. Butler is up for resentencing after the state Legislature passed a bill in 2019 removing second-degree burglary from the list of offenses that can make a defendant a persistent offender, better known as the three strike law.

A firearms enhancement punishes a defendant for using a gun while committing a crime and adds additional prison time to a sentence.

Haskell prosecuted the case at trial, but the charging decision was made by Mark Cipolla, chief deputy criminal prosecutor at the time, McCollam argued.

In support of his motion, Graham submitted an analysis from two University of Washington sociologists titled “Racial disparities in the imposition of weapons enhancements in Washington State and Spokane County.”

The report concluded that Black defendants are notably over-represented in felony convictions that carry weapons enhancements in both the state and Spokane County, but did not address why that’s the case. The report was created by comparing people charged to the general population.

McCollam filed a report by Bob Scales, a former prosecutor and leader at Police Strategies LLC, who has also done work for the Spokane Police Department.

Scales agreed with the UW report’s data, but disagreed with conclusions arguing prosecutors respond to police referrals in charging. He argued that Black men are more likely to be reported for a crime than other populations, similar to an argument he made in a 2021 report for SPD.

McKay acknowledged that racial disparities in the criminal justice system is a serious issue.

“It is not something that this court takes lightly,” McKay said.

She ruled against Graham’s motion, saying he failed to show bias in the widespread decision-making in the Prosecutor’s Office or to connect Haskell to the charging decision at the time. McKay also noted that Graham’s own experts didn’t study the cause of the racial disparity in charging.

McCollam said after the hearing he’s not concerned about having similar arguments in the future and doesn’t believe the numbers are there to prove discrimination on the part of the prosecutor’s office.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Preston McCollam’s name.