Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell has officially apologized and attempted to distance himself from his wife’s racist rants on social media, but defense attorneys, experts in legal ethics and civil libertarians think his office and reputation are damaged, maybe beyond repair.
Lesley Haskell, 57, has found herself in the eye of a hurricane-force storm of controversy after the Inlander alternative newspaper in Spokane published a story on Jan. 27 excerpting a string of posts on the conservative social media site Gab.com in which she freely used slurs referring to Blacks, Jews, Latinos and other ethnic groups — defending those statements as “free speech.” She had declared herself a “proud white nationalist” and held up the Ku Klux Klan as a beacon of “white culture.”
In those posts, she appears to embrace the QAnon theory that Donald Trump remains the U.S. president, has posted photographs of herself with members of the far-right Proud Boys and, in one, declared that “white people need to start having more babies.”
Larry Haskell, who has served two terms as Spokane County’s elected prosecutor and has announced his intentions to seek a third this year, has rejected any notion that he holds similar views. Haskell, a former B-1 bomber pilot and graduate of Seattle University School of Law, met his wife while both were serving in the Air Force.
“I do not and will not tolerate racial bias or discrimination in any form,” he wrote in a letter posted on the prosecutor’s web page last week. “People that know me fully understand those are not my views. I do not tolerate racial bias or disparate treatment of any kind as proven by my words, deeds, and treatment of others during my tenure as prosecutor.
“I want to strongly reassure everyone that what was expressed in the Inlander, as my wife’s comments, are not my views nor the views of the prosecutor’s office — nor should they ever be,” Haskell wrote. “I have never and will never use such language. I apologize for the language and content as contained in the article.”
In a private memorandum shared with attorneys in his office and obtained by The Seattle Times, Haskell said, “I very much love my wife and want her to freely express herself; however, at times, we do not share or express the same thoughts.”
William S. Bailey, a professor from practice at the University of Washington Law School, notes that while Haskell’s statement appears “thoughtful, honest and sincere,” it does little to lift the taint of his wife’s words.
“This is a very interesting situation, somewhat unprecedented,” said Bailey. “There is no question that, at a minimum, this creates a fundamental appearance of fairness issue.
“I do know that if I was a member of a minority group, his wife’s comments would be transferred to Mr. Haskell, notwithstanding his comments to the contrary,” he said. “There is just too much bad history to ignore.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if Larry Haskell was a judge and this information about his wife came out, he would have to recuse himself from any case if asked to do so by an attorney for a party,” Bailey said.
Kendrick Washington, the director of policy advocacy groups at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said “it would be reasonable that the public would question the integrity of that statement,” adding that a number of Spokane-area community groups have reached out to the ACLU in recent days for guidance.
“It does nothing to resolve the public perception of whether his office is fair and impartial,” Washington said.
Some defense attorneys in Spokane are in the early stages of mounting a legal challenge against Haskell’s prosecution of their clients and his ability to serve as prosecutor for that very reason.
One of them is Joe Kuhlman, who worked for six years as a Spokane County prosecutor before becoming a local defense attorney. He claims friends and mentors in that office, and is stunned by the revelations regarding Lesley Haskell’s comments and questions Larry Haskell’s ability to hold them at a distance.
“The legal ability to do something should never be confused with a moral ability to do something,” Kuhlman added, stating that Haskell’s internal statement about wanting his wife to be able to “freely express herself” amounts to “tacit approval of her statements at best.” Haskell should condemn them, unequivocally, he believes.
“I’ll help; Nazis are bad. Bigotry is bad. ‘I am married to a racist; and this is beyond wrong,'” he said. “It is a simple statement to assert.”
Kuhlman said his firm, in conjunction with other lawyers and civil rights groups in the county, are “examining the legal options and ramifications now involved with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office and all cases where the defendant is a minority,” he said.
Kuhlman said Lesley Haskell’s comments add a darker shade to longstanding evidence that the criminal justice system in Spokane County, like those in most urban settings, skews against people of color. Black and Native American people are jailed more frequently, with long jail stays, than any other group, according to a 2017 analysis of jail populations by the JFA Group.
Thomas Hillier III, one of the state’s most respected defense attorneys who retired as Seattle’s federal public defender after holding that job for nearly 40 years, believes the relationship between Haskell and his wife is entangled with the ability to do his job and can’t be easily separated.
“One area I’d be particularly concerned about is his ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes,” Hillier said. “Her language suggests she is a hater and it’s feasible to believe that she might find herself in the crosshairs of law enforcement — it’s a fine line between speech and actions in these cases. To me, he seems to be in a very vulnerable position.
“Finally, it’s just outrageous that someone — anyone — would use that language publicly. It’s not acceptable that, as a law enforcement guy, his wife is inciting and spreading this stuff.
“What it means is that the county’s prosecutor is living with a white supremacist and not complaining about it or coming forward,” Hillier said. “He’s an enabler. That’s disturbing to me, and should be to anyone.”