Clallam prosecutor: Homicide cases over-taxing office

Nichols seeks funding for two positions to handle increase in work

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County commissioners are considering whether they should tap into the county’s reserve to handle the significant hike in legal work caused by the recent increase in homicides.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols told the commissioners Monday that he needs to hire a second victim witness coordinator — a position he’s been wanting to add for some time — and an additional deputy prosecuting attorney in order to handle the increased case load.

Nichols said staff, who are salaried, work “as long and as hard as is necessary to get the job done,” but that only works for so long.

“The candle has been burning at both ends for about six months,” Nichols said. “I’m not here because I want to be, but because it’s necessary to keep the office intact.”

Nichols said that according to the Death Penalty Project, a county the size of Clallam County will statistically have two to three murders per year, but this year has been highly unusual.

“Right now we have nine citizens who are dead with six defendants and murder trials processing,” he said. “We are well above statistically where we should be.”

Dennis Bauer, Kallie Ann Letellier and Ryan Warren Ward are all charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the Dec. 26 shooting deaths of Darrel Iverson, Jordan Iverson and Tiffany May.

Matthew Timothy Wetherington is charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of Valerie Kambeitz and her three children, Lilly Kambeitz, Emma Kambeitz and Jayden Kambeitz, whose remains were found following a fire at the Welcome Inn RV Park in Port Angeles on July 6.

John R. Sutton is charged with vehicular homicide in the May 29 death of Lou M. Galgano.

Nobody has been arrested in the Jan. 2 death of Valerie Claplanhoo.

Shay C. Darrow, who is charged with the Jan. 12, 2017, murder of his father, Clint Darrow, is still awaiting trial.

“These are time-consuming prosecuting efforts,” Nichols said. “We have had to delegate away from other cases.”

Nichols said his office had been able to handle the prosecution of Bauer, Letellier and Ward, but the increased workload caused by the case against Wetherington has pushed the office over the edge.

“In the aftermath of that, it has become clear to me we have exhausted our ability in-house to draw on resources in the felony division or other divisions,” he said. “We’re just at a point in time due to unforeseeable circumstances tragic in nature that … we’re starting to fall behind.”

Nichols said that while he is asking for the additional positions, the county should also expect higher-than normal costs in other areas, including from the courts, preparing for trial and in public defense.

He said cases involving homicide take more than a year to resolve, sometimes two or more years. They often require using experts from out of state.

“I would recommend you look at what’s happening from a cost consideration now,” he said. “As long as these continue to cycle through the system, there will be unforeseen costs asked of the county.”

Nichols said if caseloads drop in the coming years, he would likely leave a deputy prosecuting attorney position empty after someone leaves, but he would likely keep the victim witness coordinator.

Commissioner Bill Peach said the commissioners should fund the two positions “as soon as possible.”

“We have a reserve dedicated for needed service,” Peach said. “On cash flow, I’d say there isn’t any question. We can provide the resources that are necessary.”

Commissioner Mark Ozias said county officials should work together to present a timeline and more details so that it can move forward.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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