Tommy Ross, accused of murdering a Port Angeles woman 28 years ago, will have a trial in August. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles murder trial to proceed with fingerprint evidence

PORT ANGELES — The local murder case of already-convicted murderer Tommy Ross Jr. will proceed as planned.

Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour last week let stand key fingerprint evidence against Ross, 58, who is accused in the strangulation killing of 20-year-old Janet Bowcutt of Port Angeles 39 years ago.

In a four-page written ruling issued Friday afternoon, Coughenour denied a motion by Port Angeles lawyer Lane Wolfley, representing Ross, to exclude the fingerprint at Ross’s two-month trial slated to begin Aug. 28.

In doing so, Coughenour rejected Wolfley’s bid to have first- and second-degree murder charges dismissed against Ross, rejecting Wolfley’s motion that the fingerprint was fraudulently copied by law enforcement.

Ross, on Canadian parole for the May 14, 1978, strangulation death of Janice Forbes of Victoria, B.C., is being held in the Clallam County jail on $1.5 million bail in connection with Bowcutt’s April 24, 1978, death.

Like Forbes, Bowcutt was found face-down, strangled and hogtied in her bedroom, according to court documents.

Ross’ left-hand middle fingerprint was allegedly found on Bowcutt’s bathroom doorknob.

The fingerprint was central to Coughenour’s ruling.

Wolfley pointed to inconsistencies in the print processing, including the numbering system, the tape that was used to obtain the evidence and the lack of original fingerprints.

“The primary thrust of the defendant’s argument was that the fingerprint evidence was forged by law enforcement prior to being submitted to the FBI for re-analysis back in 1978,” Coughenour said in his ruling.

“These are all interesting possible discrepancies, all of which are based on assumptions that this court cannot make based on police reports, transcripts, affidavits and exhibits alone,” Coughenour said.

“Certainly, the defense is free to argue at trial any anomalies in regard to the number of lifts or latent fingerprints or latent impressions and develop their theories as to the source of the one latent fingerprint claimed to be a match with Tommy Ross.”

Former county Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly, prosecuting the case pro bono for the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, will have to prove “the admissibility of the evidence they intend to submit to the court at trial to get the secondary evidence of fingerprint lifts admitted,” Coughenour added.

“At this time, the court will not exclude fingerprint evidence based upon claimed police misconduct, perjury or forgery based on what is before the court at this time.”

Kelly saw Coughenour’s ruling as an affirmation of her argument before him.

“I’m very pleased, and it sounded to me as if he adopted our reasoning,” she said Monday.

Wolfley remained convinced that Ross would never go to trial.

“There’s just so many problems with it,” he said Monday of the case against his client, who is receiving representation from Wolfley at public expense.

“The fingerprint evidence has all been lost or destroyed, that’s Number 1, and under very suspicious circumstances,” Wolfley said.

“Number 2, DNA evidence is coming back favorable for the defense.

“And beyond that, there’s no evidence that ties Tommy Ross to the crime scene.”

At least two more hearings are scheduled in the next 11 weeks leading to Ross’s trial.

Coughenour will hear arguments July 11 on Kelly’s motion to admit evidence of the Forbes murder in Ross’s trial because of the similarity of the killings.

A third woman was murdered by strangulation and found with her hands tied behind her back Nov. 8, 1977, in the Los Angeles area about five months before Bowcutt was murdered, Kelly said.

“These three cases are all so similar that one cannot help but conclude that they were all committed by the same perpetrator,” Kelly said in her filing.

She also cited similar California assaults Jan. 31 1978, and March 28, 1978.

Kelly said evidence from the Bowcutt murder in Port Angeles was submitted to Canadian authorities for Ross’s trial for murder in connection with Forbes’ death in Victoria.

Coughenour also will hear arguments July 18 on the admissibility of a May 11, 1988, verbal confession Ross allegedly made to then Port Angeles Detective Ken Fox and then-Detective Sgt. Tom Riepe — later Port Angeles police chief and now retired — that he killed Bowcutt.

________

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