Six weeks before Matthew Starr's murder trial, a new prosecutor has been assigned to the case because of concerns that Starr's defense attorney could be permitted to call the original prosecutor as a witness.
Starr, 21, of Vancouver is scheduled to be tried Dec. 2 on suspicion of robbing and murdering his roommate, Joshua R. Schenk, in what he claimed was a mercy killing, in February 2012 near Vancouver Lake.
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik on Monday removed Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu from the case and assigned Deputy Prosecutor Dan Gasperino in his stead.
"In an abundance of caution, because the judge has ruled that Vu could be called as a potential witness, we decided to reassign the case," Golik said.
John Henry Browne, Starr's defense attorney, has argued for Vu's removal since July because Vu participated with Vancouver police detectives in interviews of witness Zackery Searcy. Searcy drove Starr, his friend Zachary Mattson and the victim on Feb. 29, 2012, to Vancouver's Lower River Road, where Schenk was killed.
Searcy pleaded guilty in May to first-degree rendering criminal assistance and was sentenced to 366 days in prison, according to court records.
Golik said prosecutors commonly accompany investigators in interviews with witnesses.
However, Browne said he may call Vu as a witness at Starr's trial to testify about whether he made a deal with Searcy to get Searcy to testify against Starr and about statements Searcy made. If Vu testifies, that would create a conflict of interest in prosecuting the case.
Initially, the Prosecuting Attorney's Office adamantly opposed taking Vu off the case. Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson in July asked Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick to prohibit Browne from calling Vu as a witness.
"Vu has spent a significant amount of time learning the case, meeting with the victim's family, discussing the case with law enforcement, researching issues as pertaining to the case and preparing for a lengthy trial," Jackson argued in his motion.
Melnick ruled that Vu was not allowed to act as prosecutor during a July motion by Browne to dismiss the murder charge against Starr because Browne planned to question Vu during the hearing. The judge denied the motion to dismiss the charge.
However, Melnick never ruled on Jackson's motion to prohibit Vu from being called as a witness during trial.
In a Sept. 17 letter to the prosecutor's office and Browne, Melnick wrote: "The court needs to resolve the issues as to whether or not Mr. Vu will be disqualified or be permitted to handle the case."
But on Tuesday, Gasperino withdrew Jackson's motion.
Golik said ethical guidelines don't allow him to go into details about why his office decided not to argue for Vu to remain on the case.
"We didn't agree with Browne that Vu could be a witness, but we didn't argue it," Golik said.
Gasperino said he's kept up to date on the case, and he expects Starr's trial to remain on schedule.
"We are going to make our best effort to provide justice for Mr. Schenk," he said.