The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has been much in the news since Mark Lindquist was elected to run it in 2010. Not all the news has been reassuring.
Lindquist and his deputies have served the county well in important ways. Putting away criminals – which they’re good at – is almost the definition of public safety.
The office has also gone above and beyond with community initiatives. Its attorneys have put special emphasis, for example, on prosecuting and preventing crimes against the elderly, locking up street predators and offering pro bono volunteer services for low income veterans.
We are troubled, though, by a pattern of unusually aggressive tactics and actions in court – usually against bad guys, but in one case against a 26-year veteran police officer.
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Lindquist says he is giving Pierce County’s citizens the “vigorous” prosecution they want. That may be so, but at least some judges believe that he and some of his deputies have been excessively vigorous in certain cases. The office has been getting more backlash from the judiciary than under Lindquist’s recent predecessors, and may be getting more than any other prosecutor’s office in the state.
In an analysis published last Sunday, The News Tribune’s Adam Lynn looked at the Washington Supreme Court’s reversals of convictions for what the court calls “prosecutorial misconduct.” Out of 14 such reversals statewide since January 2013, Pierce County – by itself – accounted for six.
These included such high-profile cases as the prosecution of Dorcus Allen, accused (and originally convicted) of driving the getaway car for Maurice Clemmons after Clemmons gunned down four Lakewood police officers in 2009.
Lindquist says that the term “misconduct” is misleading and incendiary, that it amounts to “prosecutorial error.” He and his team criticize some of the court’s logic. They may be right that the current court in one case set aside longstanding precedent. That said, Pierce County remains the only jurisdiction to see so many convictions toppled for serious errors.
Even if wacky supreme court justices were to blame in each of those reversals, the prosecutor’s office has run into other problems with local courts.
In a troubling case dating to 2010, prosecutors jailed the wife of a child rapist, Lynn Dalsing, partly on the basis of a photo that supposedly showed her engaging in sexual conduct with a young girl. The photo was part of a child pornography series long known to other investigators, a fact that should have quickly ruled it out as evidence. Yet the prosecution clung to it like a Rottweiler with a chew toy.
As reported by The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson, that blunder led to years of legal maneuverings and new, more severe charges against Dalsing. Last month a respected Superior Court judge, Edmund Murphy, killed those charges with a finding of “prosecutorial vindictiveness” – a rare finding that prosecutors retaliated against a defendant for exercising a constitutional right (in this case, a civil lawsuit).
The prosecutors involved vehemently insist that Murphy got the law wrong. An appeals court will answer that question. But the case might not have come to this if Lindquist’s office hadn’t initially tried to stretch such lean evidence so far.
One spinoff of the Dalsing case was the office’s effort to hammer now-retired Pierce County Deputy Mike Ames with crushing legal fees. Ames was one of the case’s original investigators. The undoubtedly bull-headed deputy got into a running legal battle with prosecutors and wound up being tagged as a “Brady cop” whose testimony could be impugned in a courtroom. He lost his attempts to clear his name, and Lindquist has attempted to stick him with $118,000 in legal fees.
The attempt to squeeze so much money out of a career officer’s retirement is the clearest case of overzealousness in the prosecutor’s office.
Lindquist cites the applause his “vigorous” actions get at public gatherings. You’re rarely going to get boos for using naval artillery against people implicated in murders and other heinous crimes.
But reversals and setbacks can carry great costs to taxpayers and crime victims. And one reason we have a criminal justice system is precisely to replace popular vengeance with due process and measured punishment.
Neither Lindquist nor his chief deputies wake up in the morning thinking, “How much overkill can we get away with today?” They are honorable people seeking – by their lights – justice in the courtroom.
But they’d do well to spend more time reflecting on their tactics. A Harvard Law professor, Lawrence Lessig, has deplored what he called the “I’m right, so I’m right to nuke you” ethic in some corners of American criminal justice. Nuclear weapons work, but conventional weapons do the job quite well – and judges are more comfortable with them.