Pierce trials become an issue in Jefferson prosecuting attorney campaign
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Jefferson County prosecuting attorney candidate Michael Haas

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

Costs of Pierce trials add up

By Charlie Bermant

Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County has spent more than $263,000 so far on the double-murder trials of Michael J. Pierce.

No estimates were available Tuesday for the costs of a fourth trial set to begin Oct. 9.

Pierce, 39, of Quilcene was convicted in March 2010 of killing Pat and Janice Yarr in their Quilcene home in 2009. The conviction was overturned by the state Court of Appeals.

Two retrials have ended in mistrials, and the third is set to begin Oct. 9 in Kitsap County Superior Court.

The cost of the first trial was approximately $370,883. All but $45,000 was reimbursed by the state as part of the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Costs Act.

Expenses logged between Jan. 1, 2012, and June 2, 2014, total $166,198, according to an accounting provided by Jefferson County Auditor Donna Eldridge.

That includes attorney's fees for both sides (salary of the prosecution, direct allocations for defense), witness fees, subpoena costs, travel and administrative fees.

This doesn't include jury and jail expenses, and some county departments did not log Pierce-related expenses as such because they were no longer being reimbursed by the state, according to County Administrator Philip Morley.

Incarceration costs are more than $42,000.

Pierce's incarceration costs the county $106.47 per day at a yearly cost of $38,861.

He was moved to the Jefferson County jail in February 2013 and has remained there aside from two weeks spent in the Kitsap County Jail during the third trial.

His medical expenses are not subject to public records requests.

The jury costs for the second trial, which ended after five days, were about $900, according to the court clerk's office.

The jury costs for the third trial, which ended in its second week, was approximately $9,000, the court clerk's office said.

The costs for the fourth trial “will be considerably more than that,” according to Jefferson County Superior Court Administrator Michelle Lorand.

A resolution to allocate the public defender salary is in the works, Morley said, but the amount is currently undetermined.

Morley said the trial costs are covered by the fund balance in the county's general fund.

If the cost of the trial ever exceeds the fund balance an interfund loan can be arranged, he said.

While the money spent on the trial may be at the expense of other services, there is no connection between the trial costs and particular county programs, Morley said.

“The trial costs can affect what we allocate for parks and recreation or staffing, but it's not tied to any specific line item,” he said.

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans, who has led the prosecution for all of Pierce's trials, said he does not consider cost while trying a case.

“Everyone talks about cost, but they never talk about justice,” he said.

“I don't want to be the one to tell a murder victim's family that we aren't going to prosecute because we don't want to spend the money.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.
By Charlie Bermant

Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans, who is seeking a second term in this year's elections, told county Democrats last week that he wanted to “address the elephant in the room.”

“Some people think [the original double-murder trial of Michael J. Pierce] should be an issue in the campaign,” Rosekrans, 62, told more than 70 people at the Port Townsend Recreation Center.

“If anyone says that Scott Rosekrans doesn't deserve a second term in the prosecutor's office because he botched the Pierce trial, you can look them in the eye and say that is an insult to the memories of Pat and Janice Yarr, who were murdered in their homes and this should not be part of the campaign.”

Rosekrans' remarks surprised his challenger in the Nov. 4 general election, fellow Democrat Michael Haas, a Port Townsend attorney, who said he had planned to address the Pierce trial at some point in the campaign but only as one example of Rosekrans' handling of the office.

“I think he's trying to make it a campaign issue,” Haas, 53, said later.

“I wasn't going to get into it the way he did, and I think that comment that someone is dishonoring the Yarrs' memory if they question his decision-making process was in poor taste.”

When asked outright, Haas said: “The case was mishandled. It's that simple.”

Pierce, 39, of Quilcene was initially convicted in March 2010 of killing the Yarrs, also of Quilcene, in 2009.

He also was convicted of arson, armed robbery, burglary, theft of a firearm, unlawful possession of a firearm, theft of a credit card and larceny in connection with the murders in which the Yarrs were shot and a fire set afterward, apparently to cover the crimes.

That conviction was overturned by the state Court of Appeals on the grounds that Pierce's constitutional rights were denied after his arrest and that Rosekrans' closing argument represented prosecutorial misconduct.

Since then, two retrials have ended in mistrials.

In the first, which was in Jefferson County, a juror said she might have seen Pierce the night of the murders, thereby becoming a potential witness.

The second retrial, which was in Kitsap County, was ruled a mistrial after jailers did not give Pierce his prescribed medication.

A third retrial is scheduled to begin Oct. 9 in Kitsap County Superior Court with a predicted five-week duration.

Pierce's attorney, Richard Davies, is expected file a motion to dismiss all charges at a July 18 pretrial hearing.

Takes issue with ruling

Rosekrans takes issue with the appellate court's decisions and has criticized the state Supreme Court for refusing to hear the case.

“The appellate court said Pierce was denied adequate defense, but that wasn't true. He used the phone twice but chose to call his girlfriend instead of his lawyer,” Rosekrans said.

“The court ruled that my closing argument was too prejudicial, but there was nothing I said that would have changed the jurors' minds because I was arguing the facts.”

The Court of Appeals ruled that Rosekrans' characterization of the murder scene as a “nightmare” and his creation of a hypothetical about the Yarrs' state of mind was inappropriate.

Said Rosekrans: “Ironically, two months later, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in State v. Davis and held that comments of a similar nature were not prejudicial and affirmed the conviction.”

Haas' comments

During his address last week to the Democrats, who were considering endorsements, Haas didn't mention the Pierce trial.

He referred to the fact that Rosekrans, former county deputy criminal prosecutor, had lived in Washington state for two years before his election to the top prosecutor post in 2010.

“Washington's laws are complex and are not something you can pick up after just a few years,” Haas said.

“It can take decades to figure out the complexity of the law of the state, and not fully understanding the law can be devastating in criminal cases for crime victims and their families,” he added.

“It can also cost the state tons of money when cases are bungled.”

Prosecutorial misconduct

Haas said later that Rosekrans “engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, and the Court of Appeals ruled that he made up stuff during his closing argument” in the original Pierce trial.

Haas said he didn't believe it was necessary to stop the first retrial in Jefferson County.

“In the second trial, it was questionable whether they needed to agree to a mistrial,” he said.

“I don't think a mistrial was necessary considering the tens of thousands of dollars that the county spent on the trial.”

Haas finds no fault with Rosekrans in the second mistrial in Kitsap County but blames him for the need for an emergency hearing to renew a speedy trial waiver.

“You can't blame the outcome of the third trial on my opponent, but he almost lost the trial because of the speedy trial rule. He is not willing to take responsibility for his actions,” Haas said.

Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay B. Roof was inspecting the court record May 5 when he discovered that Pierce's waiver of a speedy trial was set to expire May 24 and a promised renewal had not been formalized.

Roof scheduled an emergency hearing the following day, and the waiver was submitted.

Rosekrans later said the failure to extend the waiver would not have resulted in Pierce's release since Davies earlier had promised in court to renew the document.

Trial during campaign

The timing of the next Pierce trial means Rosekrans likely will be trying the case for the last month of the campaign, and the verdict could come after the election has been decided.

“The Pierce trial is my first priority, and everything else will take care of itself,” Rosekrans said.

“The trial will end on Thursday afternoon. I'll come back here and prepare for the next week of trial and do a little politicking.

“The election will always be in the back of my mind, but I won't be thinking that I have to win the trial or the voters will turn me out of office.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 03. 2014 8:27PM
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