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Monday, August 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:15 P.M.
Confounding murder case tests court system in turmoil
Her son Craig was 13 years old, "a little slow" and "real gullible," she told police. Missing for three hours, he had gone outside with two other boys to play in Oasis Park, a roadside stretch of ponds and trees.
"I just hope he's not in one of the ponds. Oh, God," she said, crying.
Less than an hour later, an Ephrata police officer's flashlight lit upon Craig's body face down, under a willow tree. "Don't know if he's breathing," the officer radioed.
He rolled Craig over. Blood covered the boy's face and shirt, and his eyes were half opened. There was no pulse.
Using floodlights and a ladder, police looked for signs Craig had fallen from the tree, but found none. The coroner pointed to a chest wound that, he said, may have been caused by a knife.
A detective taped bags around Craig's hands to preserve evidence under his fingernails. If Craig was murdered, maybe he scraped away some of his attacker's skin.
That night, police questioned the two boys last seen with Craig each 12 years old, and neither in trouble with the law before. Police would question them again and again in days to come, collecting shifting statements that were not confessions, but that would lead prosecutors to charge them with first-degree murder.
Up to the challenge?
A complicated, troubled case in a very troubled court system
Each boy says he is innocent, and a year and a half after Craig's death, questions abound: Did they do it? If so, why? Which boy did what? If they are innocent, then who is guilty?
The decision to try the boys as adults a rare step for children that young poses questions that go beyond evidence: Can children understand their rights? Aid in their defense? Know right from wrong?
With its legal complexities and factual holes, this case would test the best criminal-justice system. But Grant County's is one of the state's worst.
The trial judge has been censured for incompetence, the prosecutor has been convicted of a drug felony, and the county's public-defense system is the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
Evidence in the case has been destroyed or not yet tested, the prosecution has tried to squeeze the public defenders' resources, and the defense is in such disarray that one attorney wants out.
This month, Patricia Arthur, a Seattle attorney and juvenile-justice expert, wrote the boys' lawyers a four-page letter that castigated the defense for failing to prepare witnesses, preserve evidence, grasp basic information or reduce attorney caseloads. Get help now, she urged them.
"Painfully aware of the systemic problems in the Grant County public defender system, we cannot in good conscience sit by and watch the harmful effect of these well-known deficiencies unfold in these two cases," she wrote.
Grant County's struggles raise the biggest question of all: Can justice be served?
Prosecutors have knife, bloody clothes and conflicting stories
The boys previously said they last saw Craig walking home. Now, they said Craig fell from a tree and was lying there, bleeding. As Evan checked for a heartbeat, he got his own clothes bloody. He threw his sweatshirt into a pond, and the two boys fled, afraid of getting in trouble.
Evan was a curly-haired class clown, described by one psychologist as average "in virtually every way that can be measured." He had his first date just weeks earlier, holding hands at a skating rink but not kissing the girl.
When Craig first went missing, Evan helped search for him. But in his interview with police, Evan admitted leading his parents away from the body: "I didn't want us to be the one that found him cause then they'll know like, if, because then they would be thinkin' maybe that I knew exactly where he was and stuff."
Jake was born seven weeks early and never really caught up. He was a tiny sixth-grader with the language abilities of a first- or second-grader. In his interview with police, Jake was asked if he knew what an autopsy was.
"Yes, it's when you, you test the shirt, like whatever clothment, and you could see if they're lying or not," Jake said.
The following morning, on Feb. 17, a pathologist performed the autopsy. Craig was stabbed five times in the chest and back, each wound about 5 inches deep. He was also stabbed in the head and neck 34 times, at least and beaten. In Craig's skull the pathologist found a broken knife tip.
By the next day, both boys were in juvenile detention. They have been there ever since.
When Jake was booked, he was 4 foot 7, 60 pounds. His head barely reached the chest of the investigating detective. Evan applied for a public defender and gave his income as $12.50 a week for delivering newspapers.
Two months after the killing, Jake's account changed again. Now Jake was saying he left to get sodas for the three and returned to find Evan crouched over Craig's body. Evan threw something into a pond, and offered Jake some music CDs to lie about what happened.
Jake, joined by one of his lawyers, pointed police to where the object went into the water and nearly a year later, divers found a knife there, police reports say.
No fingerprints or other evidence put that knife into either boy's hands, but the knife's broken tip fits the fragment found in Craig's skull.
Crime-lab reports show Craig's blood on Evan's undershirt, and both Craig's and Jake's blood on Jake's jacket cuff.
The defense's best case may be what the prosecution lacks: The state has no confession, no eyewitness, no easy explanation why. What it has is two boys with no prior records and a crime that seems to have come out of nowhere.
The cost of justice
Lawyers battle over hiring of experts, investigators
If Jake's and Evan's lawyers don't get the help they need, a conviction could get overturned, and the case sent back for retrial.
But at one hearing after another, prosecutors have opposed defense requests for investigative help, expert witnesses and additional lawyers.
"In my experience, it is absolutely unprecedented for the prosecutor to become involved in the resources provided the defense," said Anne Harper, the public defender for King County. "That situation is amazing to me. The King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office would never even think of doing it, much less do it."
Last year, the boys' lawyers asked for an investigator someone to do for the defense what police do for the prosecution. The defense believes as many as 50 people in the park that day weren't questioned by police.
In King County, public defenders have investigators on staff. A case like this would likely receive a full-time investigator.
But in Grant County, investigators get hired in juvenile court on a case-by-case basis. And, unless a case is deemed "extraordinary," the defense must pay out of its own pocket.
At a hearing in July 2003, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Stephen Hallstrom argued this case, though "tragic," is not extraordinary. "It's not extraordinary, in the strictest sense of the word, to have juveniles killing people," he said.
Hallstrom's argument stunned Brent De Young, one of Jake's attorneys: "I looked over to see if he was saying that with a straight face."
(In 1996, Hallstrom argued that the case of Barry Loukaitis a 14-year-old who killed a teacher and two students at his Moses Lake school wasn't extraordinary, either.)
Evan's attorney, Douglas Anderson, argued the Sorger case was extraordinary, citing not a law book but his dictionary. Extraordinary means "beyond what is usual," Anderson said and he had never before hired an investigator in seven-plus years.
The defense won this round: The judge ruled the case was extraordinary. But the matter of investigative expenses was hardly settled. Prosecutors haggled over the investigator's bills, saying he was doing work attorneys should do, or that he wanted too much for travel. "They nit-pick, oh my God," said the investigator, Charles Schlesinger.
To save money, Schlesinger worked on behalf of both boys even though their defenses are at odds. Jake's latest story, after all, implicates Evan.
"Looking in hindsight, yeah, it could have been a conflict," De Young said recently.
Earlier this month, prosecutors opposed the appointment of certain defense experts. This round they won.
Weaknesses of the defense
A strained public-defense system rejects early offers of aid
A pending class-action lawsuit accuses Grant County of giving indigent defendants representation so lousy that it violates the U.S. Constitution. At least four defendants have received new trials because of their public defenders' slipshod work.
This year, two public defenders were disbarred. Each was accused of asking court-appointed clients to pay for services that were supposed to be free.
In the Sorger case, prosecutors decided early on that they wanted the boys tried as adults. If convicted as juveniles, the boys could be held to the age of 21. If convicted as adults, they would face a minimum 20-year sentence.
One month after the killing, the Northwest Juvenile Defender Center, a resource center funded by the American Bar Association, offered its help to keep the boys in juvenile court. Director Simmie Baer wrote the boys' attorneys of how she had "never spent less than six to eight months" preparing for such a hearing and described using resources ranging from an expert on adolescent development to a videographer to capture community sentiment.
"The possibilities are endless," she wrote.
The boys' attorneys refused her offer of free assistance.
In March 2004, a judge ruled the boys should be tried as adults, even though the prosecution's expert recommended otherwise. The expert said neither boy had the traits of a psychopath and that housing them with adult prisoners would make them more dangerous.
As adult defendants, Jake and Evan were each assigned two court-appointed lawyers.
In King County, a case of this magnitude would likely go to seasoned public defenders with few other commitments.
In Grant County, one of Evan's attorneys is Randy Smith. He has been an attorney for only four years, and his felony caseload this year has already surpassed 110. Earlier this month, he still hadn't read all the police reports in the Sorger case.
Alan White, one of Jake's court-appointed attorneys, already has about 105 felony cases this year 38 of them still open.
The Washington Defender Association, which provides training and support for public defenders statewide, offered to help find other attorneys to try the case, said Kim Ambrose, a lawyer with the association and the University of Washington's child-advocacy law clinic.
"I can't stand to watch the house burn," Ambrose said. "These are the youngest kids to be declined [from juvenile court] in our state. It's in a county that has been struggling with its public-defense resources. And we have two kids who've asserted their innocence. I can't tell you how unusual that is."
But Smith said outside counsel isn't needed.
"What does that help, getting an attorney in from Portland, or Seattle, or Timbuktu? How does that help?" he said. "Is there something about my law degree that is somehow less because I have an office in Grant County? I find that a little offensive. Maybe I'm young and cocky, but I think I'm pretty good."
Body cremated before defense testing; key samples still not analyzed
But Grant County Coroner Jerry Jasman said neither the defense nor the prosecution asked his office to hold the body, so he released it to Craig's family three days after the autopsy. The body was cremated soon afterward.
"We're not going to sit there and hold it forever without someone telling us to," Jasman said.
During the autopsy, the pathologist collected fingernail scrapings from Craig's hands, a police report says. Knowing who, if anyone, left tissue under his fingernails would figure to be crucial evidence be the answer Evan, Jake or someone else entirely. Known early, such evidence could help frame the police investigation and defense strategies.
But 18 months after the killing and 13 months after one defense attorney asked whatever came of the scrapings, saying they could be "critically" important that evidence has yet to be analyzed.
Only recently have the two sides made arrangements to do those tests.
The mystery of a motive
Were they predators who targeted an awkward boy or normal kids who went out to play?
To prosecutors, Jake and Evan are predators who lured a vulnerable child from the safety of his home.
But the two boys had few, if any, of the hallmark features of violent youths, according to psychological reports.
Friends since they were 2, Jake and Evan spent hours watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. win NASCAR races, and fishing for perch and crappie with their stepfathers in pothole lakes.
Evan didn't torture animals; hadn't been arrested, suspended or expelled; didn't appear violent or withdrawn; didn't set fires. He had average grades and an average IQ, and no history of mental illness.
To believe what prosecutors say about Evan, you have to believe this average kid committed a savage murder and lied about it to his parents, to police and to psychologists, and then held to that lie.
To believe Evan's story about Craig falling from a tree, you have to believe someone else came through the park afterward, found Craig lying there, and stabbed and beat him.
Although Jake made poor grades and got into occasional, mostly minor, trouble at school, he, too, had no history of mental illness, no run-ins with police, no pattern of escalating violence.
Of the three boys who went to play in the park, Craig's history was the saddest.
At age 2, his mother reported, Craig ate pieces of his mattress and wallboard, drooled and banged his head against his crib.
Diagnosed as mildly autistic, he was physically and socially awkward, and struggled to adjust after his parents moved from Everett to Ephrata in 2001. His mother said he had just one close friend.
He liked Hot Wheels, riding the lawn mower and fiddling with wrenches while his father, a mechanic, fixed cars, she said. But Craig struggled even at Special Olympics. "The kids with Down's syndrome were more coordinated," she said.
On Feb. 15, 2003, he jumped at the chance to go play when two more popular kids appeared at his door.
Prosecutor's troubled past
Lead prosecutor has limited experience and a felony conviction of his own
"I'll admit, I made a mistake," he says. "But I worked very hard to right a wrong that I did."
He was hired by the Centralia Police Department in 1977. He worked his way up from patrol to being the sergeant in charge of drug investigations, and was once Officer of the Year. But in 1989, Owens told a lieutenant that he was hooked on methamphetamine.
Details of his downfall can be found in the records of a state retirement fund from which he receives disability payments.
A psychiatric report says Owens rationalized his use of drugs as a pick-me-up: "I was taking drugs to enforce the law," he said.
Owens was hospitalized for a month and a half and received psychiatric and substance-abuse treatment.
A psychiatrist wrote that Owens suffered periods of despair and rage, struggled to control his impulses, and "would be a danger to both himself and others as a law-enforcement officer."
Over the protests of Centralia officials, who likened his situation to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Owens was granted disability. He was found to suffer "amphetamine dependence, a personality disorder, and major depression." In 1993, his disability was declared permanent.
Owens was charged with theft and possession of methamphetamine, records show. He says he pleaded guilty to the possession charge and served four months in jail.
He later studied law, passing the bar in 1999, and went to work in Grant County. Owens' boss, John Knodell, calls him "the prodigal son" and says, "I have full confidence in him."
Last year, Owens' wife accused him of domestic violence and received an order of protection. Owens denies hitting or threatening her. She has since filed for divorce.
Problems in the courtroom
Trial judge has tainted record; one defense attorney wants help and another wants out
In 1996, the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct brought disciplinary charges against Jorgensen alleging, among other things, that he repeatedly fell asleep on the bench and was so incompetent that five other counties, including King and Spokane, refused to accept him as a visiting judge.
The commission and Jorgensen agreed to a punishment of censure. Jorgensen admitted to being incompetent in civil law and appearing to play favorites. He had to go back to school there's a college for judges in Reno, Nev. and to take classes in evidence, decision making and ethics.
The commission's charges were made public in March 1996. Grant County re-elected Jorgensen later that year.
When Jake and Evan were arrested last year, Jorgensen was the first judge assigned the case. But Evan's attorney challenged Jorgensen's fairness and impartiality, and he was replaced.
In Washington, each side in a criminal case is allowed to have one judge removed simply by alleging bias. Attorneys have struck Jorgensen at least 220 times between 1998 and 2003 four times more than either of Grant County's two other Superior Court judges, according to an analysis of available court data.
But in this case, the process of picking a judge began anew once it was determined the boys would be tried as adults. With only three judges, the prosecution struck one and the defense another. That left only Jorgensen.
At a hearing earlier this month, Jake's attorney, Alan White, asked Jorgensen to appoint a psychological expert to evaluate whether Jake knew what he was doing when he waived his right not to talk to police.
Jorgensen cut White off. "I'm going to deny that," the judge said. "We don't have that kind of money in the county."
Jorgensen said he could decide on his own whether Jake's statements were voluntary.
White, dejected, said afterward: "It would have been helpful to have an expert to educate the judge about Miranda issues and juveniles."
On Friday, White filed court papers pleading for help. "I am swimming upstream right now," he wrote, saying he has no training in defending juveniles or experience with DNA. Admitting he lacks the experience to make crucial decisions in this case, he asked that Michele Shaw, an experienced Seattle attorney, be allowed to assist him.
White's current co-counsel wants to call it quits. De Young filed a motion last week asking to withdraw from the case, saying the county wasn't paying him promptly, causing financial hardship. He also said the county had poisoned the pool of available experts by stalling payment for their work in prior cases.
Without more financial help, De Young said, he feared being found incompetent, and held liable.
The mothers' regret
All 3 youths' mothers share grief, regret, quest for justice
At a recent hearing, like others before in the last 18 months, the Sorgers and the defendants' parents eyed one another across the courtroom.
Jake's grandmother wore a faded T-shirt with Jake's picture and the words "Betrayed Innocence." Craig's mother, Lisa Sorger, carried a shopping bag of her son's elementary school pictures.
The Sorgers and Evan's parents have cross restraining orders. Each family accuses the other of driving past home or work, and scowling.
Jake's and Evan's attorneys requested access this summer to the Sorger family's Child Protective Services records, arguing in court that they want to pursue the possibility that Lisa Sorger killed her son.
"They want to shield themselves from blame," Lisa Sorger says.
In separate interviews, the three mothers talked of grief and second guesses.
Jake's mother, Tammy Vickery, accompanied her son as he turned himself in, reassuring him: "The police department will find the truth, and you will be home in a month or two."
Vickery, crying, shook her head. "That's what's so disappointing for Jake and for us. We lost faith" in the system, she said.
She said she feels for Lisa Sorger. "She's got a child she lost. I don't want to lose mine, too."
Holly Parent, Evan's mother, regrets helping police. The day after the murder, she discovered that the shoes Evan had worn at the park were wet, and she confronted him. Out came Evan's second story, about Craig falling from a tree an account she believes. She took Evan to police and turned over clothes he had worn that day.
Knowing what she does now, she would never have helped police, she said. "There's absolutely no way. Honesty, I feel, is what got my son in here. Me being honest and giving them the so-called evidence."
For Lisa Sorger, there is grief for letting her son out the door. He was recovering from the flu, but his eyes had lit up at the prospect of playing football with Jake and Evan.
"Craig was just so excited to go play," she said. "I knew when I let them out the door something bad would happen. I just didn't have a really good feeling."
Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com
Prosecutors have opposed defense requests for investigative help, expert witnesses and additional lawyers a situation a juvenile-justice lawyer has called "unprecedented"
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