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Swift Hand of Justice 

How two recent murder cases ended with guilty pleas in a fraction of the usual time

click to enlarge County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski: "I can honestly say I've never had a case move that quickly." - JACOB JONES
  • Jacob Jones
  • County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski: "I can honestly say I've never had a case move that quickly."

Juan E. Sifuentez, 33, deserves little, if any, sympathy. With devil horns tattooed on his forehead and a lengthy criminal record, he has seemingly abandoned any pretense of innocence. So only his public defender Jay Ames voiced the slightest opposition last week when Sifuentez offered up a guilty plea to first-degree murder just three months after charging.

"You're talking about very serious charges," Ames says later. "I've never seen anything like that happen that fast."

Justice, anchored by due process, tends to move slowly. Cases can drag on for years. Investigators question witnesses. Labs analyze forensic evidence. Attorneys build arguments. As of this week, at least six defendants in the Spokane County Jail remain in custody awaiting trial on murder or robbery charges dating back to 2012.

When Ames learned that his client planned to admit to the charges, he asked Judge James Triplet to deny the plea. Ames couldn't in good conscience support Sifuentez giving up and accepting a life sentence. When Triplet asserted that Sifuentez had the right to plead guilty, Ames asked to withdraw from the case in protest, but the judge pushed on.

"He could have postponed it," Ames says. "It's very frustrating."

For brutally killing a 51-year-old woman, Sifuentez will now serve life in prison without the chance of parole. In a similarly short murder case, STA stabbing suspect Donald Phillips will spend more than 28 years in prison after pleading guilty in June, just three weeks after his arrest.

Defense attorneys consider these cases to be extraordinary circumstances, but they also serve as reminders that due process is a process — it involves careful investigation, representation and judgment. You can't rush justice.

"There's a possibility of more mistakes when it gets hurried," Ames says. "Things are minimized. The case doesn't get thoroughly worked."

Attorney Tom Krzyminski has served nearly 25 years as a public defender. In December, he took over as director of the county's Public Defender Office, and in June he took on the Phillips murder case. He acknowledged the proceedings had moved faster than he anticipated, but he says many factors aligned to make for an appropriate and rapid resolution.

"I can honestly say I've never had a case move that quickly, that had such a serious nature," he says. "[But] the clients are calling most of the shots. It's their decision."

As director, Krzyminski has a smaller caseload, so he says he devoted more time to the Phillips case in the early stages. A plea bargain quickly emerged that would result in a lengthy prison sentence, but avoided a third strike that would have guaranteed life in prison.

"My client walks away satisfied with the outcome," Krzyminski says of a successful plea deal. "Maybe not happy, nobody's ever really happy, but a lot of times they get to the point where [they know] this is the best road."

Ames says he would have appreciated more time to discuss those options with Sifuentez, who insisted the guilty plea was the "right thing to do." Ames argues allowing for more negotiation would have undoubtedly resulted in a long prison sentence, but maybe the chance of parole in the future, a "light at the end of the tunnel." But Sifuentez gave up.

"From a human standpoint, that's just a terrible thing," Ames says. "It makes you sad for them, sad for everyone involved."

Spokane County public defenders often handle close to 150 felony cases a year, including almost all of the area's murder cases. Krzyminski says each attorney recognizes his or her duty to provide a vigorous defense.

"There's got to be some pressure on us due to the caseload," Ames agrees, "but I don't think the attorneys would allow that to interfere with [their responsibilities to their clients]."

In recent years, the county has increasingly negotiated low-level felonies through an Early Case Resolution program that streamlines charging, information sharing and plea offers. Supporters say the system has many benefits, including a smaller jail population and fewer trial delays.

Krzyminski says those benefits must still balance against the meticulous process of building a thorough defense. The Phillips and Sifuentez cases, he says, represent outliers in which the individual personalities, circumstances and police evidence perfectly aligned.

Beyond the incriminating evidence, both Phillips and Sifuentez insisted on moving forward with the pleas. In a recording of his sentencing, Phillips told the judge he wanted to take responsibility for the killing without inconveniencing the court any more than necessary.

"I hope you take that into consideration," Phillips says, "that I didn't waste your time or anybody else's time in this." ♦

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