[Ed. note: Both candidates for the office of Thurston County Prosecutor were sent an email with questions about their views. Neither candidate responded, but the Victor Minjares campaign sent this Q&A.]
Catherine Johnston: What inspired you to seek the position of Thurston County Prosecutor?
Victor Minjares: A sense of public duty. I saw a dire need for a changing of the guard in the Prosecutor’s Office, and found out no one else was willing to step up to the plate. The chronic problems of our county’s law and justice system—jail overcrowding, clogged courtrooms, poor criminal case management—are too serious to not be brought before the voters.
Q: Was there a specific moment you saw the need for a change in the Prosecutor’s Office?
A: Since 2015, I’ve had a general sense that it would be better for the criminal justice system in Thurston County if the incumbent left. I didn’t imagine back then that I would be the lawyer who challenged him.
But the incumbent’s handling of a police shooting in 2015 and subsequent prosecution of the victims was terrible. I saw a video of him telling a room full of people that he had “no choice” but to prosecute the two men who were shot by the police. The prosecutor always has discretion to decline to file charges. A real leader would have owned his choice to file, or admitted it was a mistake; instead, he told the public he had no choice.
There are verified cases of prosecutorial misconduct by deputies. For example, in 2015, the Tacoma News Tribune did a story about cases reversed on appeal due to prosecutorial misconduct over the previous two years in King, Pierce, and Thurston Counties. Although the story focused on the high number of reversals in Pierce County, Thurston County has a third of the population of Pierce. Out of the three counties, the actual rate, per capita, of cases reversed due to serious prosecutorial misconduct was actually 50% higher in Thurston County than in Pierce County. 1
Q: A June 2017 report by the National Council of Superior Courts criticized the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office for having no internal criteria, standards, or written policies for assessing whether or not to file criminal charges, divert, or sentence defendants consistently. Do you think it is important to have clear policy guidelines for deputy prosecutors? If so, why?
A: Absolutely. Clear written policies are the chief way a prosecutor executes his or her vision for the office. You can’t be in every courtroom, micromanaging each case. The discretion and power of prosecutors in our system is vast, and mostly unreviewable by the courts, so a firm hand on the tiller is needed. Mandatory peer review of important decisions minimizes errors and unconscious bias.
Q: In listening to community members as part of your campaign, are there common “themes” or concerns you have learned about? How would you address such concerns?
A: Before deciding to run, I met with mental health providers, drug-addiction counselors, homeless advocates, and defense attorneys. All shared concerns about the prosecutor’s office and their lack of involvement in creating workable, cost-effective solutions to these problems with input from all stakeholders.
One example of this is the failure of the incumbent to seek the input and advice of these experts in creating a workable Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program for Thurston County. Although LEAD programs are doing great work helping hundreds of people in other cities, including Seattle, Spokane, and Los Angeles, the LEAD program has failed miserably in Thurston County, helping only one person in the entire time it has been operating.
Q: What education and experience do you bring to this position?
A: I am a graduate of Stanford Law and Pomona College with 30 years of legal experience. Fifteen of those years were spent as a criminal prosecutor in a highly professional, well-run office. I’ve tried murders, home invasion robberies, and multi-million dollar sophisticated fraud cases in special units. I co-chaired a special task force with its own staff of attorneys and investigators. So, I’ve got ample experience with serious, complex criminal issues. I also managed civil attorneys at Honda for a couple of years before moving to Washington state in 2005.
I’m in my fifth year of private civil practice handling civil litigation and advice for small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals in West Olympia. Before that, I was an assistant AG for eight years appearing in federal and state trial and appellate courts across Washington state. I also concurrently served as a judge pro-tem for five years here in Thurston County District Court.
Q: You worked for the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) for eight years. How did you like it, and did it prepare you in any way for the prosecutor’s office?
A: I was grateful for the opportunity to return to public service by working at the AGO. Traveling to courthouses statewide to represent the government was a great experience. But I found the AGO to be very set in its ways, and although it has some great lawyers and staff, many of its employees have known no other place to practice law. I decided after a time to form my own private practice. I’ve been happily helping nonprofits, individuals, and small businesses ever since.
I firmly believe that public attorneys should place the constitutional rights of members of the public above the wishes of the government as a client seeking to overcome those rights. The same goes for the prosecutor’s office. We serve the public interest. Winning cases isn’t everything—justice is.
(1) From the News Tribune: “The standard for overturning a case because of a prosecutor’s error is steeper than just finding he or she made a mistake. The higher courts also must find that the error was ‘… flagrant and ill-intentioned’… The News Tribune analysis found 14 cases statewide that fit that bill: six Pierce County cases, three from Thurston County, two from Mason County, and one each from Lewis and King counties.”
Catherine Johnston is a supporter of Victor Minjares. She is a writer who has published in The Herald, Spokesman-Review, Seattle Times and the syndicated column EndNotes. She is co-author of 101 Q/A of Catholic Married Life, Paulist Press.