Washington v. Nickels (Majority, Concurrence and Concurrence/Dissent)Annotate this Case
The State charged David Nickels with first degree murder in 2010 in Grant County, Washington. Though represented by counsel. Nickels acquired additional legal assistance from a local criminal defense attorney, Garth Dano. The parties agreed that Dano's involvement in Nickels' defense created a conflict of interest requiring Dano's personal disqualification, but they disputed the scope of his involvement. The record established that Dano entered a notice of association of counsel and appeared on the record to receive a jury question and to receive the jury's verdict. The record further establishes that after Nickels' conviction in 2012, Dano conducted interviews with jurors and potential exonerating witnesses. Via his counsel's uncontested affidavit, Nickels claimed Dano received privileged work product through his participation in crafting the defense's strategy and theory of the case, and his meeting personally with Nickels. In 2014, while Nickels' appeal was pending, Dano was elected Grant County prosecutor. Subsequently, in 2017, the Court of Appeals reversed Nickels' conviction. On remand, the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office immediately sought to screen now-Prosecutor Dano. Nickels moved to disqualify the entire office, arguing that under “Stenger,” Dano's prior involvement in his defense necessitated the blanket recusal. The trial court denied Nickels' motion; but the Court of Appeals reversed and, applying Stenger, ordered the disqualification of the entire Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. The Washington Supreme Court determined Stenger’s narrowly crafted rule applied only to Washington's 39 elected county prosecutors who, despite adequate screening, retained broad discretionary and administrative powers over their offices and employees. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that Stenger remained good law, and affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision disqualifying the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.