The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA

Witness's brief jailing legal, judge rules;
Murder case: Lawsuit over girl's
weekend incarceration dismissed

KAREN HUCKS, The News Tribune

Friday, April 25, 2003

Pierce County prosecutors did nothing wrong when they jailed an 11-year-old girl as a witness in a 1998 murder trial, a judge's ruling indicated Thursday.

Kitsap Superior Court Judge Russell Hartman, a substitute judge for the county, dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of Cierra Hull. She was held in Remann Hall juvenile facility for a weekend after she didn't show up for a court-ordered pretrial interview.

The ruling, without elaborating, granted a motion by the defense to dismiss the case and forbids Hull's family from refiling it. 

The only issue for the court was whether prosecutors had violated the girl's civil rights, said state assistant attorney general Mark Jobson, who represented deputy prosecutors Barbara Corey-Boulet and Lisa Wagner in the lawsuit.

"Prosecutors are not required to make the best possible choice of them all," Jobson said. "They are required to act lawfully and be truthful. And they did so."

Shirley Johnson, Hull's grandmother, said the "shocking" ruling gave prosecutors too much power.

"They can do what they want to people," Johnson said, "And you can do nothing about it. That's not right."

The family is considering appealing the ruling.

"It's an important issue - how to handle material witnesses - and it might be worth getting a published appellate opinion," said their attorney, Brian Ladenburg.

"Do you handle them just like criminal defendants, especially when the material witnesses are people who are trying to put criminals away?"

Corey-Boulet said everyone had felt terrible about Hull's arrest. "But we would have felt a lot worse if a child killer had gotten away because we couldn't produce an essential witness," she said. "We have to balance these things."

Hull was vital to prosecutors' case against child rapist and murderer Guy Rasmussen because she had seen him with Cynthia Allinger on the day the 9-year-old disappeared.

Hull eventually testified in Rasmussen's trial, and he was convicted of rape and murder.

On May 28, 1998, Hull's mother and grandmother didn't bring her to a court-ordered interview with defense attorneys. Prosecutors said the grandmother had planned to move the girl out of state and her family had told police they no longer wanted her involved in the trial.

So Corey-Boulet and Wagner - with the blessing of the prosecutor - asked a judge to detain her as a material witness. 

Ladenburg said Hull's family had cooperated, and detectives knew by the time they arrested her that Hull hadn't been able to get transportation to the interview.

Detectives arrested Hull at Edison Elementary School the next day. But Superior Court Judge Karen Strombom wasn't available that Friday afternoon, so Hull spent the weekend in juvenile jail.

Hull's suit claimed her civil rights were violated, and that she had been traumatized in jail.   Johnson said the experience has made Hull - now 16 and living in Spokane - distrust authority.

"And if you can't trust the law enforcement people," Johnson said, "who are you going to trust?"

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660 ; karen.hucks@mail.tribnet.com