by Jim Reierson & r & One year from now, we'll learn if Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker files for a third four-year term. If so, will anyone run against him? Despite the job's annual salary of $115,000, when he ran for reelection in 2002, no one opposed him.
Tucker is one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in Spokane County, yet he is largely unknown. He's rarely seen in the criminal courtrooms, makes no effort to have regular press conferences and has little interest in proposing new crime-fighting legislation. His Chief Criminal Deputy, Jack Driscoll, is the mainstay of the Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
Over the past 50 years, Steve Tucker may turn out to be the most ineffectual prosecuting attorney Spokane County has ever had. From 1948-59, Hugh Evans held the job; in 1959, John Lally took over for four years. In 1963, George Kain took on this position until he resigned in 1968. His Chief Criminal Deputy, Donald Brockett, then became the Prosecuting Attorney and held that position for the next 25 years. All of these men were known for their integrity, honesty and fairness and for actually trying cases in court. In 1994, Brockett decided not to run again. The campaign focused on whether the prosecutors should be represented by a union. Deputy Prosecutor James Sweetser ran against and beat Stephen Matthews, Brockett's hand-picked candidate. Unfortunately, due to his stormy tenure, Sweetser was largely responsible for Steve Tucker's election.
During Sweetser's term, more than 23 attorneys were fired or quit in protest after Sweetser vigorously fought any union contract for the attorneys. In 1998, they all rallied behind Tucker, an affable former Washington state trooper who had worked as a deputy prosecutor for 10 years. Tucker resigned after Sweetser suspended him for five days in April 1997. The Spokesman-Review reported in October 1998 that the suspension was based on Tucker regularly missing meetings or not being where he said he was, along with failing to obtain permission to plea-bargain a drug case. His supervisor, Sarah Beemer, said, "I could never get him to take cases to trial. His being gone reached the point where it became a joke around our office."
Nonetheless, Tucker was elected with 52 percent of the vote -- hardly a landslide -- after an employee union funded a massive television ad attack against Sweetser in the final days of the campaign. Shortly after his election, Tucker fired Beemer.
Other than obtaining a union contract for the prosecutors, which resulted in substantial pay raises for them, what has Tucker accomplished? He rarely appears in court to personally prosecute any case. He was widely criticized for plea-bargaining the Robert Yates serial killer case, in which Tucker agreed not to seek the death penalty. Two detectives in the serial killer task force told Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney John Ladenburg about Tucker's plan to offer Yates a deal, just two months after Yates was arrested in April 2000. Two of Yates's victims were murdered in Pierce County.
Unknown to most of the victims' families, Tucker was regularly golfing and socializing in Coeur d'Alene with Richard Fasy, Yates' chief defense counsel, which greatly distressed the task force detectives. Ladenburg promptly filed murder charges in July 2000. Yates was subsequently convicted and received the death penalty in Pierce County, but only after Tucker tried to help the defense by submitting a sworn statement and testifying in court that Ladenburg had verbally authorized him to include the two Pierce County murder cases in the plea bargain he wanted to offer Yates. In February 2002, the Spokesman-Review reported that Ladenburg had contacted Tucker when he heard about the possible plea bargain to voice his and other elected county prosecutors' concerns that Tucker was rushing into a plea bargain even before the investigation was complete. In the story, Ladenburg said, "I expressly and emphatically deny that I ever gave Mr. Tucker authority to file our cases." Tucker has never sought the death penalty since becoming Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney.
Tucker, in my opinion, has never taken DUI cases seriously, either. He had a policy in force that allowed most first-time offenders to plead to a lesser offense, Negligent Driving 3rd Degree (which does not require any license suspension), even if the blood-alcohol levels were as high as 0.14. When this fact became public knowledge, Tucker announced on Feb. 2, 2002, a "get-tough" policy that would not allow plea bargaining DUIs with excessive blood-alcohol levels. On Feb. 9, 2002, the Spokesman-Review reported that Wayne Smith, statewide executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said, "Frankly it bothers me," when he learned that Tucker's office routinely plea-bargained DUI cases without reviewing each case individually. Smith stated he never heard of a prosecutor with a policy like Tucker's: "That sends a message to the community that we're not tough on crime."
During his campaigns, Tucker has shown no interest in proposing a felony law that would require actual prison time for repeat DUI offenders, the group that causes most alcohol-related highway fatalities. These repeat offenders refuse to abandon their dangerous lifestyle and continually jeopardize public safety. I question Tucker's concern for the victims of repeat DUI offenders, and for victims of crime in general.
In September 2003, after a Lewis and Clark High School student took a loaded handgun to class, terrorizing students and teachers, he was shot and wounded by Spokane police after he had pointed his gun at them. Tucker later visited local schools to ask students how the case should be handled. Was he elected to take polls?
It's apparent to me that Steve Tucker is the criminal defendants' best friend in Spokane County. We can do better. It's time for a change.
Jim Reierson, a Spokane native and resident, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a deputy prosecutor in Kootenai County. He says he currently has no plans to run for Spokane County Prosecutor.