by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he ghost of Otto Zehm haunts this fall's race for Spokane County prosecutor. The name of the 37-year-old janitor, who died while in restraints after a long struggle with police last spring, is quickly invoked by both the challenger, Democrat Bob Caruso, and by two-term incumbent Steve Tucker, a Republican.
Caruso grows animated -- to the point of leaning forward and jabbing his finger into a tabletop -- when he mentions Zehm's death as one of the major factors in his decision to challenge Tucker for prosecutor. Tucker, he contends, is too close to police and never brings charges for police misconduct.
"So the question is: Who stands up for the little guy here? Everybody is under the law," Caruso says.
"I don't hear a lot of complaints," says Tucker. "People who know me know I am making tough decisions here on a weekly basis."
Zehm's death in police custody was ruled a homicide. "If we have a homicide or a crime against humanity, I don't care who is accused," says Caruso. "It is important to look into criminal negligence or reckless conduct."
Tucker says his investigation into Zehm's death has been lengthy. "I like to have all the information, then decide," he says. He sees election year politics behind the complaints that he has been stalling.
Both Caruso, 68, and Tucker, 56, held other jobs before deciding on law school. Tucker was a Washington State Patrol trooper for a decade; Caruso owned a small business, Linoleum and Carpet City, for 32 years. After law school, each opened private practices, surviving mainly on criminal defense cases. There is this much in common -- then they part dramatically.
Caruso has been an attorney seven years and never a prosecutor. He says, "I have the capacity and capabilities and legal skills that it takes to do that job." In criminal defense, he says, he is intimately aware of a prosecutor's tactics and whether or not the prosecution has a case. Too often, he says, county prosecutors over-charge or pursue cases where they don't have enough evidence to convict, Caruso says.
Caruso confronted Tucker on police misconduct issues during a function in Spokane Valley last week.
At the gathering, "Tucker said he wasn't going to prosecute the two policemen in the firefighter case because it was -- and here's his quote -- 'a waste of the county's time and money because it was just a misdemeanor,'" Caruso says.
"So ... is it Tucker's position that we shouldn't prosecute misdemeanors? By that standard, we could make the workload go away."
Caruso seems genuinely impassioned about his call for equal justice, and that police malfeasance should be quickly and publicly investigated and punished where merited.
All the same, it makes him sound more like a crusader than a prosecutor. Asked if he is focusing too much on a tiny crime category, Caruso answers that there is a bigger issue at stake: "If there was excessive force, it should be investigated. I want to look at a police officer with respect and admiration, not with fear and suspicion."
Tucker says his 74 attorneys and 75 staffers handle more than 5,000 felony filings a year -- nearly double what it was eight years ago, he says. He says he is proud of the department's success (a new drug court showing fewer than one in 10 participants re-offend, for instance) and that he's adjusted staffing to tackle the backlog of roughly 500 uncharged property crimes and drug crimes.
Caruso also criticizes Tucker for not trying many cases ("I would carry a regular caseload."), for plea-bargaining too many cases ("They bleed 'em and plead 'em ... one for the win column," Caruso says), and for golfing too much (he produced scores posted by Tucker during weekday rounds at Downriver).
Tucker deflects the criticisms as examples of good management. Prosecutors in an office the size of Spokane County's do more administrating than trial work, he says; plea bargains are an efficient way to clear thousands of open-and-shut cases; and "I was talking to [developer] John Stone the other day, and he said the fact that I golf so much tells him I'm a good manager."