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In race for county prosecutor, incumbent Haskell takes aim at ‘lawlessness,’ while Conklin eyes reform, transparency

Oct. 11, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 12, 2022 at 9:09 a.m.

Deb Conklin, on left, and incumbent Larry Haskell, candidates for Spokane County Prosecutor, debate during the Northwest Passages Pints and Politics Candidate Forum, Thursday, October, 6, 2022, at the Bing Theater.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Deb Conklin, on left, and incumbent Larry Haskell, candidates for Spokane County Prosecutor, debate during the Northwest Passages Pints and Politics Candidate Forum, Thursday, October, 6, 2022, at the Bing Theater. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Incumbent Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell hopes to fight “lawlessness” by holding people accountable if elected to a third term, while challenger Deb Conklin argues the current system isn’t working and that reforms are necessary to reduce repeat offenses.

Haskell, a Republican, was elected prosecutor in 2014 and again in 2018. A pastor and former Clallam County deputy prosecutor, Conklin is running as an independent.

Conklin along with two Republican candidates, Stefanie Collins and Stephanie Olsen, filed against Haskell after an Inlander article exposed racist comments on social media by his wife, Lesley Haskell.

Larry Haskell said he doesn’t share the views of his wife or prosecute based on race.

He has called into question Conklin’s skills as a prosecutor, based on a 1987 case that was dismissed for “egregious misconduct.” Conklin said Haskell is leaving key context out of the complicated case.

Olsen and Collins failed to garner enough votes to move past the primary. Neither Olsen nor Collins has endorsed a candidate for prosecutor in the general election.

In recent debates, Haskell has criticized Conklin’s lack of recent prosecutorial experience.

“The question for the voters is, does four years of experience as a deputy prosecutor when Ronald Reagan was the president the answer to the county?” Haskell said at a Spokesman -Review debate earlier this month. “Or is somebody who’s been – with an exception of a three-year active duty stint – constantly in the law since 1998 at ever-increasing levels of responsibility, to and including, eight years as the elected?”

Years of leading United Methodist congregations has given Conklin experience in leading people and inspiring them to do their jobs well, she said. Conklin also argued Haskell’s tough-on-crime approach isn’t working.

Haskell and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who endorsed Haskell, have had a tough-on-crime approach for years while recently complaining that crime is escalating, Conklin said. Their approach doesn’t appear to be working, she said.

“It just seems to me that our community is ready for a different approach,” Conklin said. “He just simply is not open at all to the possibility that there could be a better way.”

Haskell blames the state Legislature, police reforms and the state Supreme Court for sending the message that “lawlessness is OK.”

Last year, the Supreme Court overturned Washington’s simple drug possession law, using a case out of Spokane County where a woman claimed she didn’t know drugs were in the pocket of a pair of jeans a friend recently gave her.

As a prosecutor, Haskell said he hears that defense used all the time. He believes the court was looking for a case to overturn the law.

“Common belief is that the Supreme Court was looking for our case, to be able to strike down a law that they had a problem with anyway, because of the disparate numbers of persons of color that were being convicted of drug crime,” Haskell said.

Conklin criticized Haskell for prosecuting the case and giving the court an excuse to overturn the law. Both agree the state Legislature needs to come up with a fix for the law next year.

Recently, Haskell also has criticized judges for setting bail amounts he feels are too low.

“I get more complaints from citizens about people being released on low bonds than anything else,” he said.

He created a new form for his deputies to submit into the court file indicating the bond amount they asked for and then what the judge ruled to make it easier to track the issue, he said. Low bail amounts allow people back into the community to then commit more crimes, he argued. Haskell’s office asks for bail in most cases.

Conklin doesn’t like the assumption that there should be cash bail in every case, she said.

Holding people in jail pretrial, especially on nonviolent crimes, can cause people to lose their jobs and housing, she said, suggesting something like electronic monitoring might be effective for offenders deemed not dangerous.

She is in favor of programs that would allow more people to be released pretrial.

Part of what drew Conklin, along with two other challengers, into the primary was a controversy over racist statements made by Haskell’s wife on social media, coupled with disparities in prosecuting data.

Lesley Haskell called herself a proud white nationalist and used the N -word to describe MSNBC host Joy Reid, who is Black.

“Our race is dying, we need to make more white babies!” she wrote in one post.

Interspersed with posts supporting her husband’s campaign, Lesley Haskell posts on Facebook unfounded claims about fraud in the 2020 election and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine .

On Twitter she recently retweeted a photo comparing George Floyd, whose photo was captioned “dead drug addict, criminal who resisted arrest,” to Cayler Ellingson, a North Dakota man whose photo was captioned “killed for being a conservative.” A 41-year-old suspect in Ellingson’s death is accused of intentionally running over the 18-year-old. The murder charge includes details that the suspect believed Ellingson was a “Republican extremist,” according to VICE.

The case quickly became a flashpoint for Republicans such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. The case shares no similarities with the death of Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death sparked nationwide racial justice protests.

Lesley Haskell also recently retweeted a photoshopped picture of President Joe Biden in a Nazi uniform and other tweets connected to Q-Anon conspiracy theories. She is also a frequent poster on Gab, a social media platform marketed as a less restrictive alternative to Facebook and Twitter that is largely used by conservatives. Posts to her Gab account are not publicly viewable.

Shortly after the Inlander article exposed Lesley Haskell’s postings, Larry Haskell apologized for his wife’s remarks. He went on to defend his office and said he doesn’t prosecute cases based on race.

Conklin hopes to take an in-depth look at the inherit bias in the office’s practices if elected. She also hopes to restore public faith in the office by being more transparent.

Haskell continues to maintain that disparities in prosecuting data come from “up stream” in the criminal justice system, pointing to the fact that people of color are arrested more frequently.

Earlier this year, a judge ruled against a motion to remove Haskell from a case because of his wife’s racist comments as well as racial disparities in charging. Haskell has touted that ruling as evidence that his office is not biased.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Julie McKay did not evaluate whether Haskell and his office prosecute cases in a discriminatory manner but instead ruled the defense attorney hadn’t presented enough evidence in his motion to remove Haskell from the case.

Conklin said Haskell’s “up stream” argument hasn’t been satisfactory to the public.

“If the office has clear evidence that they can offer in rebuttal, then I think the public would hear that and accept that,” Conklin said. “But all the evidence that has been put together shows disparities.”

Conklin said she is the best person for the job because she will turn the office into one that is “perceived to be fair in implementing justice.”

Haskell argued his experience is what makes him the best person for the role. Haskell has worked in the prosecutor’s office since 1998 except for a three-year Air Force deployment from 2002 to 2005.

“The qualifications between me and my opponent are just huge,” Haskell said. “Qualifications matter, experience matters.”

The practice of law is a perishable skill, he said.

“When you haven’t done it for 35 years, most of it has perished,” Haskell said.

He has also called Conklin’s brief prosecuting record into question citing a 1987 appeals court decision on one of her cases. Child molestation charges against a defendant were dismissed by a judge due to misconduct and mismanagement of the case by Conklin. The decision was upheld on appeal.

The court ruled Conklin advised the father of one of the young victims not to comply with a court order requiring an expert hired by the defense to interview the children.

Conklin denies advising the father to disobey the court order and instead said she laid out his options and offered to do what she could to help.

The mother’s boyfriend was accused of molesting three young children, Conklin said. The defense attorney hired an expert known to be “so aggressive in his interrogation of children that he would make it so the state had no case left,” she said.

She argued informally in court that it was inappropriate to have the expert interview the children but had not opposed the previous order for the interview, something the appeals court said showed mismanagement of the case. Conklin said she was just trying to protect the children and pointed out it’s now standard practice for experts to be prevented from interviewing young witnesses.

She admits she should have formally moved to quash the court’s subpoenas of the children.

“The fact that Larry (Haskell) is trying to make a big deal out of this case strikes me as really unable to understand the damage that would have been done to the children,” Conklin said. “I took the position that I was going to do everything that I legally and ethically could to protect the children.”

Haskell argued that the case is evidence that not only have Conklin’s prosecutorial skills perished after years out of the legal field but that she wasn’t that good of a prosecutor to begin with citing her “egregious misconduct” in the case.

The candidates disagree over the prosecutor’s offices role in dismantling Camp Hope, a large homeless encampment along Interstate 90 within the City of Spokane.

There’s nothing being done about the “growing problem” at Camp Hope, Haskell said.

His office is prosecuting cases related to the camp including a recent shooting.

“So the issue becomes who is going to do something?” Haskell said during a debate on KSPS.

Haskell’s office filed a lawsuit against the state at the request of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich last week in hopes of getting permission from a judge to clean up the camp.

The service providers at the camp, including Empire Health, “have made progress” on moving people out of the camp to better situations, Conklin said.

She is not in favor of the county stepping into what should be the city’s primary responsibility.

“The city should be given the opportunity to solve that problem first, without the county coming in and being heavy-handed and saying you have to fix it now,” Conklin said.

Washington ballots will be mailed to voters next week.

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