What happened to Lawrence Howse was an unspeakable tragedy. In the confines of his enclosed parking garage, he was robbed at gunpoint, and when he refused to remove his pants for the amusement of his two assailants, he was executed in cold blood.
Updates on the investigation have been front page news since the murder last month. That includes the recent arrest of two men in connection with the killing, whose faces appeared on page one of Saturday’s TNT. This is not a sensational ploy to sell papers – the public deserves to know that the police department and prosecutor’s office are operating at maximum effort to find Howse’s killers and hold them accountable.
Deeper in Saturday’s paper there was another story about an eerily similar homicide. The murder of Yoshiko Couch occurred in 1997 on Tacoma’s East Side. Like Howse, Couch was accosted at her residence by two men who raped the 65-year-old woman while her disabled husband, an army vet, slept in their bedroom. After the brutal assault, her killers used a cloth drenched in a toxic household cleanser to asphyxiate her.
I recall learning the grisly details of the crime while an officer in Tacoma. Couch’s murder incensed the police department; investigators, forensic techs and patrol officers worked tirelessly to track down her killers. The investigation concluded with the arrest of two neighborhood men, Cecil Davis and George Anthony Wilson. The prosecutor’s office charged them, and the two were convicted.
While Davis has spent the last fifteen years on death row for the crime, Wilson’s punishment has been much less severe. Though summaries of the case suggest he was an equal partner in the crime, Wilson was nevertheless given a comparatively light sentence of twenty-five years.
On Friday, fifteen years after his sentencing, Wilson’s punishment shrank further. In a plea agreement, prosecutors shaved five years off Wilson’s sentence. Without early release, Wilson presumably could be a free man in about five years. Why?
It turns out that eleven years ago Wilson filed an appeal of his conviction. It was somehow misplaced (TNT 9/28), though how such a thing could happen is left unexplained. One would think there would be any number of checks and balances in place to prevent such a glaring mistake.
When the Washington State Court of Appeals finally “found” the paperwork, they decided Wilson deserved another trial. Prosecutors proferred a plea deal (likely for budgetary reasons, not to mention the stale nature of evidence and memory after the passage of fifteen years). Not surprising, Wilson took the deal.
That outcome obviously reflects badly on our system of justice. Yoshiko Couch died violently in her own home. The police conducted a thorough investigation and arrested her killers. The prosecutor’s office brought Davis and Wilson before a court of justice and made their case.
And then justice dropped the ball.
Like Couch, Howse’s murder will generate reams of paperwork. The administrative tasks are complex, even monumental. The prosecutor’s office must stay on top of the case file both before and after the verdict.
So too must our courts. If the criminal justice system is to operate with the full support of its citizens, it must do a better job of managing that process.
The victims – and the families they leave behind – deserve that much.