TACOMA — Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols is hoping Tommy L. Ross Jr.’s first night of freedom in 38 years is among his last for a long time.
Ross was freed from the Clackamas County jail Tuesday at about 7:30 p.m. after the state Court of Appeals confirmed the dismissal of first- and second-degree murder charges against him in a 40-year-old case.
Nichols’ office had sought to delay Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour’s Oct. 23 ruling.
Coughenour said Ross’ speedy trial rights had been violated. Ross was first charged in the case in 1978.
The Court of Appeals is expected to hear Nichols’ appeal of Coughenour’s ruling in February.
Nichols’ office is “absolutely” pursuing the appeal despite the appeals court ruling and will submit an appellate brief by Dec. 18, he said Wednesday.
Ross’ lawyer on the Clallam County charges, Lane Wolfley of Port Angeles, said Wednesday that Seattle attorney Nancy Collins of the Washington Appellate Project will file a brief on Ross’ behalf 30 days after Nichols’ office files its brief.
Wolfley said he is “100 percent confident” that the dismissal of charges will be upheld.
He said Ross, 60, was heading to California to care for his elderly mother.
Ross sounded “relieved and happy” when Wolfley spoke to him Tuesday night, Wolfley said.
“He knew this was the end of the road for the state of Washington.
“I reassured him that the appeal looked extremely favorable to him and he believes me.
“He’s also been assured that by a number of other lawyers.”
The three-judge panel affirmed an earlier decision to deny the appeal by court Commissioner Aurora Bearse, who said there were enough “debatable issues” in the case to warrant a ruling by the full court.
The murder charges were for the April 24, 1978, strangling death of Janet Bowcutt, 20, of Port Angeles.
Ross was re-arrested Oct. 23 five hours after he was released from Clallam County in Clackamas County by Oregon state police who shut down Interstate 5 to apprehend him.
Ross was on his way to California with his brother.
The arrest was made on an emergency arrest warrant requested by Nichols’ office, which wanted to stay the dismissal of charges on public safety grounds.
Bail of $1.5 million that Ross had been held on in the Clallam County jail since November 2016 was re-imposed.
The warrant was issued pending a decision on the appeal the Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday afternoon.
Ross spent 38 years in a Canadian prison after his conviction for the strangling murder of a Victoria woman before his release on parole in November 2016 and arrest days later in the U.S. on a murder charge in Bowcutt’s death.
Wolfley argued in his motion for dismissal before Coughenour that in the 40 years since Bowcutt’s murder, evidence had been lost or compromised and that witnesses and law enforcement officials had either died or would be difficult to contact.
He also said Clallam County officials had made no effort to prosecute Ross until November 2016 and that Ross was not required to present himself for prosecution.
County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Steve Johnson argued that Ross had not asserted his right to a speedy trial
In his ruling, Coughenhour focused on the actions in 1979 of then-Prosecuting Attorney Grant Meiner, who later became a Clallam County Superior Court judge.
Meiner deferred prosecuting Ross for Bowcutt’s murder, allowing Ross to be extradited from California to Canada to face a charge of murdering Janice Forbes of Victoria. Ross then served 38 years in a Canadian prison.
Meiner allowing Ross to go to Canada “was the genesis for reason for delay in this case,” Coughenour said.
Canada did not honor what Meiner said was a verbal agreement between Meiner and then-Crown Counsel Richard Anthony to return Ross to the U.S. following Ross’ conviction for murdering Forbes.
“Clallam County simply waited for 37 and a half years to go by before Mr. Ross returned through the Canadian system for prosecution,” Coughenour said.
“This is not due diligence.”
The appeals court issued the 37-word ruling Tuesday afternoon without explaining its reasoning.
“We really don’t know the long and short to what the court wound up considering in reaching the decision it did,” Nichols said.
“We have turned our attention to the merits of the appeal and will focus on that moving forward.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].