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'Officer credibility' sparks Wasco County DA review

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The Wasco County District Attorney’s office has dismissed “a handful” of cases and released one defendant from Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles — the latest update to an ongoing two-pronged case review and investigation into a The Dalles police officer’s credibility as a state witness, which began last month.

The DA’s office is in the process of reviewing 24 open and current pending cases tied to a The Dalles police officer following the discovery of a 10-year-old letter, signed by former The Dalles Police Chief Jay Waterbury, which brings into question the officer’s credibility as a truthful witness.

Newly-inaugurated District Attorney Matthew Ellis said in a Jan. 20 press release that the “Notice of Discipline” letter, dated Feb. 17, 2011, was found “buried in former Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley’s desk,” and stated the officer was demoted because he had violated the police department’s policy for truthfulness. The officer in question has been placed on administrative leave, the press release revealed.

Ellis said the first phase of the investigation will come to a conclusion when the DA’s office reaches a decision of whether to put the officer on what is known as a “Brady list,” an index of law enforcement witnesses not credible to cases brought to court. The officer has until the end of the week to compile documents and witnesses to testify at an informal administrative hearing, not yet scheduled, before Ellis and Chief Deputy District Attorney Kara Davis. Ellis is waiting for the first phase of the investigation to close before releasing the officer’s identity, citing undue influence “the court of public opinion” could bring unto the administrative investigation.

“It’s still extremely early in the process,” Ellis said in a Jan. 22 interview.

The second phase of the investigation will explore why the 2011 letter regarding the officer was not included in Nisley’s disclosure index, said the press release, and will have cases dated from 2011 reviewed.

“The main issue here is that if there’s an issue with a witness’ truthfulness, that needs to go to the defense counsel,” said Ellis.

Nisley, who served as Wasco County’s District Attorney in 2011 and was defeated by Ellis last year in a bid for reelection as the county’s top prosecutor, did not return a request for comment by press time.

In the announcement, Ellis cited Brady v. Maryland, a U.S. Supreme Court case which set the rule requiring prosecutors – district attorneys, for example – to disclose evidence that could lead to a defendant’s exoneration, calling the notice “clear discoverable evidence for any case investigated by the officer” under the Brady rule. Certain information in the possession of a district attorney’s office regarding the credibility of a state’s witness, such as a police officer, is discoverable under the Brady rule, Ellis wrote in the press release.

The DA’s office has begun compiling cases in which the officer was a witness for the concurrent case review and investigation into the officer. What the DA’s office is looking for is any convictions that could not be made without the officer’s testimony, Ellis said.

The investigation will review those cases where the officer was an essential witness and will file motions for dismissals in Wasco County Circuit Court, said the press release.

“If there’s a discovery violation, a defendant could make an appeal,” said Ellis. However, such an impact is likely to be diminished by the fact that the officer was demoted from sergeant to police officer in 2011. A demotion would have lessened the likelihood of the officer being an essential witness to criminal cases. Still, Ellis said, the disciplinary measures undertaken in 2011 should have been disclosed to defending parties— “and it appears that hasn’t happened.”

The county, city, district attorney’s office, and city police are involved in the joint investigation surrounding any and all cases involving the officer for conviction integrity, said the press release.

The Dalles City Attorney Jonathan M. Kara and The Dalles Police Chief Pat Ashmore both declined a request for comment on how they plan to cooperate with the investigation, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation and case review.

“Generally we’re hoping to have more transparency in the criminal justice system in Wasco County,” said Ellis. “We want to make sure that there’s integrity in those convictions.”

Ellis said the DA’s office is not looking to bring charges on this matter.

Additional information on the dismissed cases or released defendant has not yet been made available.