Judge allows defense attorney dating detective to stay on case
Friday, August 5, 2011
Despite vehement argument by prosecutors, a Clark County judge said Friday he’s allowing a defense attorney who’s dating a police officer to stay on an aggravated murder case.
After an hourlong hearing, Judge Robert Lewis said there’s no evidence of an actual conflict of interest. He did say, however, there could be a potential conflict of interest down the road, but it could be handled by the defendant, Dennis L. Wolter, signing a waiver form.
“Officer Easter has minimal information, at best, about this investigation,” Lewis said. “Based on the factual information, there is no basis to find an actual conflict.”
Wolter, charged in the May 26 slaying of his 41-year-old girlfriend, Kori Fredericksen, signed the waiver Friday. The waiver means he agrees to not take issue with the romantic relationship between his attorney, Bob Yoseph, and Vancouver police officer Jane Easter, formerly a major crimes detective.
The form does not protect the state when the case is resolved, meaning Wolter, 43, could still raise the issue on appeal.
That’s exactly what prosecutors are concerned about.
“Even the overwhelming appearance of conflict is quite disturbing,” Anne Cruser, a deputy prosecutor in the appellate unit, told the judge. “We’re afraid this is going to blow up in our face on appeal.”
Therese Lavallee, Yoseph’s co-counsel on the case, said that there’s no evidence Easter either has pertinent information about the homicide case, or that her work has spilled into her relationship with Yoseph.
“What matters is what material evidence she has to offer,” Lavallee said. “There is no material of Officer Easter’s knowledge” to be used in the case.
Easter testified during the hearing that she worked as a Vancouver police major crimes detective from 2004 to the end of 2010, handling mainly property crimes. She said she assisted in investigating about half the homicides in the city in that time.
Now a patrol officer, Easter had a very small role in the murder investigation: She received a phone call from a bank employee who had information about Wolter. She said that after a three or four-minute phone call, she forwarded the information on to a detective sergeant.
The most information she got were preliminary facts and never did any follow-up work, she said.
Questions then turned to her alliance with the major crimes unit. She said she keeps in contact with her replacement officer only.
“Do you still have a personal relationship with any of the other detectives?,” Cruser asked.
“No,” Easter answered.
“Do you have a personal relationship with any detectives working this case?,” Cruser said.
“No,” Easter said.
Cruser went onto to quiz Easter, who lives with Yoseph, whether she’d seen any documents at home pertaining to the case. She said no, as Yoseph works primarily out of his office.
The issue, Cruser said, is that the situation would cause “divided loyalties” for Yoseph. If Easter was called as a witness for the prosecution, would he still adequately cross-examine her, or would he be soft?
“This is what we perceive to be a very serious issue,” Cruser said. “We reserved the right to call any witnesses in a case. We don’t yet know whether we’d call (Easter)” should the case go to trial.
Cruser said she’s already seen evidence of Yoseph’s feelings for Easter pervade the case.
“I think the court could tell Mr. Yoseph became quite animated when the conversation turned to Ms. Easter,” Cruser said.
The judge said he did not find any evidence of a conflict. He acknowledged the potential for a problem if Yoseph, for instance, disclosed privileged information to Easter. But, he said, there was no evidence of that.
“It’s a potential conflict of interest for any defense attorney,” even if he’s not dating a detective, to disclose private information to anybody, Lewis said.
Lewis said he could not remove a defense attorney without adequate evidence of a problem and there was no evidence.
The judge set Wolter’s arraignment for Aug. 15.
Prosecutors have 30-day deadline from that date to decide whether to seek the death penalty. Aggravated murder, Washington’s only capital crime, carries either life in prison or the death penalty.
Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516: Twitter: col_courts; email@example.com.