King County Prosecutor’s Office accused of mishandling sexual assault cases

Dec 20, 2023, 7:20 AM | Updated: 7:24 am

Photo: The Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center....

The Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center. (Photo courtesy of King County)

(Photo courtesy of King County)

Accusations of mishandling sexual assault cases have been made against the Juvenile Division of the King County’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) by a government watchdog group.

The accusations were made in a letter to federal and state law enforcement officials on Tuesday by the Citizen Action Defense Fund, a non-profit legal organization with the goal of “advocating for all manner of conservative and constitutional causes.”

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“Juvenile crime is running amok and prosecutors are not holding juveniles accountable,” said Jackson Maynard, Executive Director of the Citizen Action Defense Fund. Maynard is the author of a formal complaint addressed to Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Maynard heads the group that is currently suing the State of Washington and Governor Jay Inslee, asking a court to temporarily halt the Climate Commitment Act.

Issues with the Juvenile Division were brought to light by the father of a sexual assault survivor.

KIRO Newsradio spoke with the father in the agreement and will keep his name and that of his daughter confidential.

The allegations, stemming from evidence collected by the survivor’s father, suggest the Division’s involvement in an “illicit agreement” with a non-profit group, diverting felony cases away from prosecution. This practice reportedly contradicts state laws and agreements, raising concerns about a failure to adhere to constitutional rights and statutory duties.

Key points from Maynard’s letter include the Division’s diversionary practices impacting sexual assault cases and a declining filing rate of such cases over the years. Moreover, the Division’s actions allegedly flout established laws, constitutional precedents, and guidelines outlined in the National Sexual Assault Investigation and Prosecution: Best Practices Guide (2021).

He said the letter is an effort to gain further attention on this issue and ask some higher judicial authorities to look at what’s going on inside the prosecutor’s office.

“It was completely for a political purpose. It’s aimed at this political goal of we just don’t want to hold juveniles accountable. And that has got to stop,” Maynard told KIRO Newsradio.

Maynard highlights concerns about potential violations of federal laws prohibiting discrimination and neglect of victims’ rights. Maynard draws comparisons to similar incidents in other jurisdictions, such as Missoula, Mont., where the Department of Justice found systemic undercharging of sex crimes.

The Missoula rate was 16.4%. The King County prosecutor’s charging rate is not much better at 17%.

King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion called the 17% number “misleading” in a letter sent Tuesday to King County Councilmembers and County Executive Dow Constantine.

“In many cases sent to the [PAO], the investigating detectives do not believe there is evidence to prove a crime, and they clearly state this in the case referral,” Manion wrote.

Law enforcement often refers to sexual assault cases as ‘statutory referrals.’ This is when the investigating agency does not believe a crime has been committed and there is not sufficient evidence to support the filing of charges but by law, must forward a report to the prosecutor.

“We decline to file charges in cases where we lack sufficient evidence to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Manion wrote.

She said there is an oft-repeated adage that prosecutors can simply file charges and let the jury decide what “sticks.”

“However, circulated or oft-repeated this adage is, it does not accurately reflect a prosecutor’s ethical obligation to not file charges where there is insufficient evidence,” Manion wrote.

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The father in the case cited in Maynard’s letter told KIRO Newsradio there is enough evidence for sexual assault charges in the case of his daughter’s alleged rape that Seattle Police forwarded the case to the prosecutor as a statutory referral.

He said that a former prosecutor with King County has reviewed the evidence and said there is enough for a charge of Rape in the Second Degree.

A spokesman said senior deputy prosecutors who review the case met with the victim’s family and shared their reasoning behind the decision to decline.

“Understandably, the victim’s family was upset,” said Casey McNertheny, Communications Director for the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

The family filed a complaint against police investigators with the Seattle Office of Police Accountability. The complaint was not sustained.

Maynard’s letter also calls into question the Division’s diversion policies for certain juveniles accused of a felony. King County has entered into multimillion-dollar contracts with several non-profit organizations to counsel juveniles accused of a crime as an alternative to being held accountable in the court system.

The letter accused the Division of entering into an “apparent informal but illegal agreement” with one group to keep the number of juvenile detentions low.

Maynard said diversion is not a substitute for the juvenile justice system.

“You can’t create your own law and just say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to prosecute juveniles anymore for crimes.’ And they have to have some measure of accountability. And it’s absolutely clear from the evidence we’ve gathered that these juvenile diversion programs had no reasonable mechanism to hold these juveniles accountable,” Maynard said.

In 2020, the King County Auditor’s Office examined declines in sexual assault cases, according to Manion.

“When auditors reviewed the PAO’s decision-making, they determined that no cases were incorrectly declined and that the PAO’s decision-making was sound in each decline,” she said in her letter to councilmembers and the executive.

McNerthney said the King County PAO welcomes independent reviews by impartial auditors.

The letter drafted by Maynar called on the Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to intervene and investigate this immediately “because survivors deserve more than what the KCPAO is providing.”

Follow Matt Markovich on Twitter or email her here

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King County Prosecutor’s Office accused of mishandling sexual assault cases