Thursday, March 9, 2017

Backfired! How Spokane's get-tough policies let an accused thief off the hook

Posted By on Thu, Mar 9, 2017 at 1:48 PM


Last year, when Quinton Goolsbey was arrested for sitting in a stolen car, he found himself the target of Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell's harsh 9+ policy.

Haskell touts his policy as a hard line against repeat or "chronic offenders" who continually victimize people in Spokane. Generally, the policy says that for people with nine or more felonies to their name, prosecutors cannot agree to plea deals except in cases where the state's evidence is weak. In turn, the accused are told to plead guilty, or take it to trial and let a jury decide. But in this case, it backfired.
click to enlarge Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell - YOUNG KWAK
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  • Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell

"This case could have easily been negotiated, and would have resulted in a sentence that was appropriate, if prosecutors had any ability to negotiate their own cases," Goolsbey's public defender, Jocelyn Cook, says. "And they don't."

Haskell defends his policy in this case, saying it's up to a deputy prosecutor to weigh the evidence and decide if they have enough to prove a crime. The deputy prosecutor in Goolsbey's case felt he had enough to move forward, Haskell says: "You can't blame the policy for that."

The judge disagreed and dismissed the case halfway through the trial. Had prosecutors accepted a plea deal, Goolsbey might have ended up behind bars. Instead, in the prosecutor's zeal to pursue the longest sentence possible, the case was dismissed and Goolsbey was released.

Here's what happened:

Goolsbey was charged with possession of a stolen car and stolen property. For him to be found guilty of those crimes, prosecutors needed to prove that Goolsbey knew the car was stolen.

Before the case went to trial, Cook suggested an out-of-court deal: Goolsbey would plead guilty to a lesser felony offense, in effect giving him a lighter sentence. Pleading guilty to that lesser offense would have violated the terms of Goolsbey's court-ordered community custody and drug treatment stemming from a previous charge. He would have ended up serving prison time.

Instead, the prosecutor rejected the deal, despite problems with the state's evidence, Cook says. Namely, the stolen car allegedly in Goolsbey's possession no longer existed. The owner sent it to a salvage yard when he got it back. Additionally, Cook says, prosecutors did not present enough evidence to show Goolsbey knew the car was stolen.

Defense attorneys are wondering why so much time and so many resources are being dedicated to cases based on an offender's felony score. Goolsbey, for example, is not necessarily a "chronic offender" in the traditional sense. The five felonies he's committed and the length of time he's been committing them pales in comparison to other offenders with 30, 40 or 50 felony convictions.

His history only dates back to 2015, and includes car theft crimes that add multiple points per charge. Stealing a car, for example, is worth three points toward an offender's score, not one.

In that way, looking at offenders strictly as numbers on a page, rather than the individual circumstances of each case, is misguided, defense attorneys say.

"We go to trial on [drug] cases for people who are homeless and have meth in their pockets," Cook says. "They're going away for years. The policy gets people convicted, but for what? The jail should be full of people who actually hurt people."
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