Murder Cases Pile Up after Violent 2016-17

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), November 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

Murder Cases Pile Up after Violent 2016-17


Byline: Jack Moran The Register-Guard

Lane County has a heavy backlog of unresolved murder cases, mainly because of a spate of homicides in the latter half of 2016 and early 2017.

As of Wednesday, 12 people were being held in the Lane County Jail on murder charges related to a dozen separate incidents. That's a fairly high number, although trials in seven of those cases are scheduled to happen by April.

"Every one of these is different," Lane County Chief Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman said, adding that the four prosecutors who handle nearly all murder cases in his office now are responsible for "more work than they should reasonably have."

"It does appear that we're getting more homicide cases in the last few years," he said. "But it's also taking us longer in some cases to get to resolution."

Prosecutors filed charges in all but one of the 12 pending murder cases between August 2016 and earlier this month.

The lone outlier is a case involving Robert Darnell Boyd, a Eugene man who was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend in 2012 but whose conviction was overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court in September 2016. His trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

The current glut may be rooted in a particularly violent stretch of crimes that taxed local law enforcement resources in mid-2015. Murder charges were filed in three cases stemming from those incidents. A suspect in one of those killings pleaded guilty last year, while the other two resulted in murder convictions earlier this year.

In addition to the pending cases filed in 2016, authorities also dealt last year with two murders that each involved three suspects. Five of those six people pleaded guilty earlier this year - one to murder, the others to lesser charges - and the sixth remains jailed while awaiting trial.

Because of the complex nature of a murder case - which often involves numerous pretrial motions and hearings, as well as scheduling issues surrounding the availability of attorneys and witnesses - it typically takes a year or longer before a trial can be held. So there's nothing particularly unusual about the fact that cases filed since mid-2016 haven't yet been resolved.

Brook Reinhard, executive director of Public Defender Services of Lane County, said experienced defense attorneys who take on murder suspects as clients know to take advantage of having extra time to work on a case.

"The luxury of a murder case is knowing you have time and resources to do whatever you need to prepare a complete defense," he said.

Reinhard's office is under contract with the state to handle three murder cases per year, but it currently has four attorneys assigned to defend six of the 12 people currently in jail on murder charges.

"We are doing more than usual," Reinhard said.

Public defenders from outside Lane County are representing defendants in five of the other cases.

Just one of the dozen jail inmates charged with murder does not have court-appointed counsel: Jeffery Witt, a Eugene man accused of fatally shooting his neighbor in July, has retained a lawyer.

Mental fitness as a factor

Hasselman and Reinhard both pointed to an apparent uptick of murder defendants with diagnosed or suspected mental illness as one potential contributing factor to the case backlog. Defendants with mental health concerns that might be relevant to their cases sometimes are sent to a state psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment, which can slow trial preparation and lead to postponements.

A local murder defendant who falls into that category is Joshua Jaschke, who allegedly stabbed a man to death in south Eugene in March. Jaschke spent time at an Oregon State Hospital facility earlier this year, and a mental fitness hearing in his case is scheduled for January. No trial date has been set. …

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