A Cop-Killing Trial - At All Costs -- Million-Dollar Prosecution Could Bring Okanogan County To Its Knees Financially

OKANOGAN - If it weren't for the red jumpsuit, an outfit assigned to the most dangerous of offenders, Juan Duarte Gonzalez might not stand out among the 130 inmates in county jail.

A stout, gray-haired man, he spends much of his time in a cell weaving tiny knots of yarn into headbands and religious hangings. Every so often, he complains about the 9-mm bullet fragments embedded in his chest wall. Other than that, jailers say, he keeps to himself.

Gonzalez's presence here has taken on far-reaching - and expensive - repercussions for the taxpayers of Okanogan County. They know him as the man accused of killing an Omak police officer with a Saturday night special, setting off an emotional outpouring this rural community had never before seen.

Gonzalez is also the man running up a $675,000 legal tab at public expense.

The prosecutor is seeking the death penalty, the first case of its kind in the county. But as family and friends of slain Officer Mike Marshall commemorate the one-year anniversary of the shooting, and as the alleged gunman sits in jail awaiting trial in July, the people of Okanogan County are confronting a harsh reality:

Putting an accused murderer to death could bring the county to its knees financially.

Gonzalez, a 43-year-old farmworker, has no money. And by law, the county must provide adequate legal representation for him.

Budget cutbacks

Confronted with a new line item in their budget, "Gonzalez Trial," county commissioners last fall ordered a halt on nonemergency travel and put a hold on updating computers and county vehicles. They have also imposed other dramatic measures:

-- Pay raises for some of the county's 350 employees were delayed and were the smallest, 2 percent, in years. County commissioners considered, but rejected, cutting their work week.

-- The county won't replace two public-health nurses who left. The number of nurses has dropped from four to two in a county that is roughly the size of Connecticut and, economically, looks more like Appalachia.

-- The sheriff won't get the type of vehicle he wants to replace the 1980 van that is used to transport inmates across the mountains, even though it keeps breaking down.

"Just about every (county) department could use one or two more people, and they're not going to get them," said Dave Schulz, chairman of the Okanogan County Board of Commissioners. "We have to put every bit we can into this trial."

9 percent of county budget

Defense costs for the trial are expected to run $675,000. The bills could spiral to $1 million, once the prosecutor and sheriff's costs are figured in, amounting to 9 percent of the county budget.

Commissioners, worried that the belt-tightening won't cover the bills, have asked Gov. Gary Locke and the Legislature to share expenses. A bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, that would give the county some financial help has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

In rural counties across the country, death-penalty cases and murder trials can drain budgets and emotions.

Twenty-nine states have created special accounts or teams of public defenders to assist counties in trying capital cases against indigents. Three other states are considering similar assistance plans.

In Jasper, Texas, the county raised property taxes to underwrite several murder trials, including cases against three co-defendants in the racially motivated slaying of James Byrd Jr.

And in Laramie, Wyo., county officials have asked the state to help finance the trials of two men accused of murdering Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. Albany County, the state's poorest, already faces a deficit of $300,000 to $400,000, not counting trial expenses.

"As far as these rural counties are concerned, it's not a matter of if it happens, it's when," Jay Weber, a former Douglas County commissioner, said of pricey murder cases. "The question is, where will it happen next, and how do you pay for it?"

First step on a long road

Okanogan County Prosecutor Rick Weber knows he and his commissioners are heading toward a decade of court appeals and unknown expenses.

Statistics show that the average capital-punishment case lasts nine years between sentencing and execution and costs $2 million to $3 million.

Weber says he must consider the drain on county finances as he plans legal strategy. Earlier this month, there were rumors of a plea-bargain proposal that would have Gonzalez plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for life in prison. The prosecutor said he cannot discuss whether there were settlement negotiations.

But, he added, "I'm fully aware of the cost and aggravation and what's going to happen (with court appeals), and it's all been part of my thinking."

County can't see how it's spent

Following state guidelines, the county has hired two private attorneys for Gonzalez, including one who, by law, must have experience in capital-punishment cases.

Gonzalez's attorneys submit their bills to a Chelan County Superior Court judge who is presiding over the case. Commissioners must pay for billable hours and other expenses the judge approves. But neither county officials, nor the prosecutor, can see how money is spent by the defense.

Schulz, the county commission chairman, made his sentiment clear when he gave the last set of defense expense vouchers a signature with this message: "under protest."

The trial was initially set for January. But the judge postponed it after lawyers requested time - and money - to explore a possible defense: that Gonzalez had been exposed to pesticides and chemicals while working in the farm fields of California, and that the neurotoxins may have poisoned his brain.

The judge had already decided an objective jury could not be found among the county's 38,400 residents. So the July 6 trial will be held in Benton County, adding yet more costs.

`We don't need any lawyers'

Neither the delays nor the expenses sit well with residents. They see an open-and-shut murder case.

"Just give him to the people of Omak," Joe Schneider, owner of a local feed store, said of Gonzalez. "We'll take care of him. And we don't need any lawyers."

About 200 miles northeast of Seattle, Okanogan County is a U-shaped land mass of cattle ranches, apple orchards and gritty terrain. Its 5,300 square miles encompass the north tip of the Columbia River, Grand Coulee Dam, some of the state's most spectacular alpine scenery near the Methow Valley and some of the state's most isolated communities.

Since 70 percent of the county is public-owned, property taxes don't generate much revenue. The poverty rate is nearly twice the state average, and with apple prices dropping to record lows, this has been a particularly rough year. Social workers, meanwhile, say they are dealing with increasing problems that often accompany a lack of education and underemployment: alcoholism, poor health care and domestic violence.

The crime

According to court records, the manager of the Stampede Motel called police between 10 and 10:30 p.m. March 25 last year when a woman complained that a man was trying to get into her room. Two police officers arrived. Marshall was one of them.

Marshall, 43, always had a way of calming tempers without having to pull a gun, friends and relatives say. There was no reason to think he couldn't do the same at the Stampede Motel.

But court records say Gonzalez was armed and agitated when officers arrived. He allegedly pulled two small guns from his coat pockets and, with a single shot, hit Marshall in the head, the records say. The other officer, Don Eddy Jr., returned fire and hit Gonzalez in the chest. Eddy was shot trying to handcuff him.

Marshall was the first law-enforcement officer killed on duty in Okanogan County in 12 years. About 2,800 people attended his funeral. For many, the mourning was not just for a uniform but also for a well-known resident who had grown up in Omak.

Last week, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting, the community held a candlelight vigil. Miniature badges are being sold to build a memorial at the new City Hall. And many are keeping a watchful eye on Marshall's widow, Rhea, and her two teenage children.

Eddy is back at work and walking around with a .25-caliber bullet in his left hip. Doctors decided it was too deeply imbedded to remove.

An issue of race and nationality

Emotions, too, can be difficult to sweep away.

In a county already grappling with a growing population of Latinos, many residents are incensed that public money is being spent defending an undocumented immigrant from Mexico with a criminal history.

If Gonzalez hadn't been here in the first place, the line of thinking goes, Marshall would still be working the night shift.

Some Latinos feel badly about Marshall's death and worry that white residents are holding a grudge against them. What makes it worse, they note, is the fact that Gonzalez has such a common name, which in Spanish is something akin to "John Smith."

"It was bad for everyone because we lost the trust" of Anglos, said Juan Carlos Galvan, a foreman who immigrated from Mexico.

Sheriff Jim Weed says the frustration isn't about race, but the seeming illogic of the criminal-justice system. He bristles when he sees Gonzalez getting assistance from two court-appointed lawyers, interpreters and private investigators.

"This is not a mystery person," Weed said. "He always spoke the King's English. Now, of course, we have to have interpreters for everything."

Gonzalez's attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment. Their client said during an interview conducted in Spanish that he can read and understand some English, but is more comfortable speaking in his native language.

The right to adequate counsel

Defense attorneys say adequate legal assistance is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and must be provided so innocent people are not convicted or executed. That guarantee applies to all defendants, regardless of whether they are American citizens or undocumented immigrants.

If Gonzalez's attorneys "don't turn every stone, that (murder) sentence can be thrown out for ineffective assistance of counsel," said Scott Wallace of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington, D.C. "People don't want to pour money into these cases because these are horrible crimes and terrible defendants. But you have to provide adequate defense."

Douglas County, another rural county in north-central Washington, is still recovering from a double homicide that cost $262,000 in the mid-1990s. Thankfully, one commissioner says, the defendant saved the public the money and gory details by accepting a plea bargain.

Grant County paid nearly $200,000 in legal bills two years ago, when it prosecuted 15-year-old Barry Loukaitis as an adult for shooting up a Moses Lake classroom, killing a teacher and two students.

Okanogan County residents, nonetheless, seem unified in taking the Gonzalez case to trial. Their worst fear is that the time and money invested might result in an overturned sentence, rather than execution.

But Rhea Marshall isn't waiting for a conviction to start the healing. It makes little difference to her, she says, whether Gonzalez lives or dies at the hands of the state.

"We can do whatever we want here, but ultimately he has to face God," she said of her husband's accused killer. "They can do nothing to bring Mike back to me."