Yakima County drops appeal of ruling in triple murder case

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The Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has dropped its appeal in the notorious case of the prime suspect in the triple murder of a West Valley family.

While maintaining it believes the appeal would have ultimately succeeded, the prosecutor’s office said Thursday that other problems with the case raised doubts about whether murder convictions could eventually be obtained.

The case revolves around Kevin Harper, who was once charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of the Goggin family during what authorities suspect was a burglary gone wrong in 2011.

But last October, the seven-time felon was sentenced to slightly more than 91/2 years after pleading guilty to weapons and stolen property charges in a controversial deal after the state’s triple-murder case against him crumbled amid a series of mistakes and missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s detectives.

Before Harper was sentenced, prosecutors tried to revoke the plea deal, saying new evidence had emerged suggesting that Harper was the killer. They also said Harper had not lived up to terms of a “cooperation agreement” that formed the basis of the deal. The document included Harper’s agreement to testify truthfully about the involvement of other defendants.

But their arguments to revoke were rebuffed by Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf.

In upholding the plea deal, the judge faulted prosecutors for failing to file the cooperation agreement in court. Without it, she said, the court could not confirm Harper’s plea was fully reviewed by the court.

In making her ruling, Reukauf repeatedly blamed the prosecutor’s office for giving her little choice, adding the outcome did not provide closure for Harper, the friends and family of the Goggins or the community.

Prosecutors quickly filed an appeal with the state Court of Appeals arguing the judge erred.

Prosecuting Attorney Jim Hagarty could not be reached by phone Thursday. But a news release issued by his office said the case involved “an unprecedented attack on the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office without a factual basis”; that the court had made evidentiary rulings without an appropriate hearing; and that unnecessary comments were directed at the prosecutor’s office during hearings. Those actions, according to the news release, “reflected an unwarranted abuse of judicial discretion and decision making.”

While maintaining the Superior Court decision was incorrect, the prosecutor’s office said a February state Supreme Court ruling on a different issue in an unrelated case would likely mean that any refiled murder charges would likely be dismissed in the Harper case.

In that ruling, which involved a King County man accused of child molestation, the high court strongly condemned the eavesdropping on conversations between an attorney and client.

“We presume that such eavesdropping results in prejudice to the defendant and have vacated criminal convictions when there was no way to isolate the prejudice to the defendant from such ‘shocking and unpardonable conduct,’” the Supreme Court wrote.

Hagarty’s office noted that investigators with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office had listened to jailhouse phone recordings between Harper and his attorney.

Since the contents of those conversations are unknown, it can’t be established whether investigators used the information, and that would likely lead to a dismissal of charges, the prosecutor’s office said.

“While no one is satisfied with the results of this case, a reversal and remand for a new hearing on the issue of the cooperation agreement, and possible reinstatement of the original charge, might have resulted in a dismissal of all charges and allowing Harper to be released without any conviction or having to serve any jail time,” the statement said.

Judges almost never respond to criticism of their decisions. But the prosecutor’s office use of terms such as “judicial abuse” brought a quick rebuke from Yakima County Superior Court Administrative Consultant Harold Delia.

“Judges can’t comment, but if there’s a concern, appeal it. ... Don’t try it in the newspaper,” Delia said. “Don’t blame it on the Supreme Court, don’t blame the appeals court ... don’t blame it on everyone else.”

Harper was arrested for the February 2011 bludgeoning deaths of Bill Goggin, co-owner of a Yakima civil engineering firm; his wife, Pauline; and his 98-year-old mother, Bettye. Authorities believe they were killed during a burglary at their gated Falcon Ridge community west of Yakima.

Harper was one of four people arrested in connection with the case. As part of Harper’s plea deal, accessory charges against his then-wife, Crystal Gray-West, were dismissed.

A third suspect, Tennance Buckingham, pleaded guilty as an accessory. Authorities said he told them he helped fence a laptop computer stolen from the Goggin home and concealed evidence he believed would implicate Harper.

Accessory charges against a fourth defendant, Tracy Culton, were dismissed after prosecutors said further investigation found insufficient evidence to proceed against her.

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