Tommy L. Ross Jr., accused of murdering a Port Angeles woman in 1978, has had his trial moved to this summer. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles murder trial delayed for evidence review

PORT ANGELES — Tommy L. Ross Jr.’s murder trial has been moved from late January to late summer to review evidence including 38-year-old DNA samples that could help exonerate him — or send him back to prison.

The evidence includes DNA drawn from skin residue found under the fingernails of 20-year-old Port Angeles strangling victim Janet Bowcutt, Ross’ attorney, Lane Wolfley of Port Angeles, said last Friday.

Wolfley said Monday he expects to receive the DNA results by this Friday.

Wolfley and former county Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly, who is handling the case for the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, agreed last Friday to seek the delay in Ross’ trial.

Originally slated for Jan. 30, it will now be held Aug. 28, Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour ruled Friday.

“There is no way we can proceed to trial this month,” Wolfley told Coughenour.

“We are adamant that Mr. Ross is innocent, and we believe there will be exonerating evidence.”

In a later interview, Wolfley cited the importance of the DNA samples from under Bowcutt’s fingernails.

“I’m very confident that it’ll be favorable,” he said.

Ross is anxious for the DNA report.

“He is adamant that it will exonerate him,” Wolfley said.

And if it doesn’t, “you just deal with the evidence that you have in the most appropriate and ethical way,” Wolfley said.

“I would be very surprised if his DNA was located anywhere near or around this crime scene.”

Bowcutt was found strangled to death, fully clothed and with her hands and feet bound in her Port Angeles apartment April 24, 1978.

Ross’ fingerprint from his left middle finger was found on the Bowcutt’s bathroom doorknob, according to a Nov. 16 certification for probable cause that drew from Clallam County’s earlier investigation of her murder.

He confessed to Bowcutt’s murder in 1988, according to that earlier investigation.

The admissibility of the confession will be argued at an evidentiary hearing.

Coughenour said he expects to set a date for that hearing at a March 21 status hearing.

Ross, a U.S. citizen, had just been paroled from a Canadian prison after serving 37 years of a life term for murder when he was arrested Nov. 10 at the Peace Arch Canadian border crossing for investigation of Bowcutt’s murder.

He had been convicted in the death of 26-year-old model Janice Forbes of Victoria.

She was found strangled to death — and bound and gagged — in her apartment May 14, 1978, three weeks after Bowcutt’s body was found.

Kelly told Coughenour at Friday’s hearing that she is waiting for evidence for the case that is in the hands of Canadian authorities.

Having it sent from Canada, which includes going through diplomatic channels, “is a fairly extensive process,” she said.

Witnesses also must be contacted for the four-decades-old case, Kelly added.

The evidence, Wolfley said, will take weeks to go through.

Kelly is prosecuting the case without charge to the county, she said in an earlier interview.

Wolfley was appointed Ross’ attorney after publicly-funded Clallam Public Defender withdrew over a conflict of interest.

Wolfley said his fee is $125 an hour to defend Ross.

Ross is being held in the Clallam County jail on $1.5 million bail.

A hearing on Wolfley’s motion challenging the practice of shackling Ross for his court hearings will be Jan. 27.

“He loses his presumption of innocence as long as he is in shackles,” Wolfley said in an interview after Friday’s hearing.

The motion was scheduled to be argued Friday, but Wolfley asked that it be delayed because Friday was the 13th of January, and his client is superstitious that doing so on that day would have been bad luck.

A Canadian jury convicted Ross of murdering Forbes on Friday, July 13, 1979.

“He shares that with a lot of society, especially because of that incident in his life,” Wolfley said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.