This story has been updated from its original version – Oct. 23, 2:30 p.m.
An American man who served time in a Canadian prison for the murder of a Victoria woman in 1978 has been dismissed of charges for killing another woman in Port Angeles that same year, after a judge in the U.S. found his right to a speedy trial was violated.
On Oct. 17, Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour ruled in favour of dismissing the first- and second-degree murder charges against Tommy Ross, Jr. in the death of 20-year-old Janet Bowcutt, saying Ross’ constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated by the 40-year delay.
“It’s the most egregious violation in the history of American jurisprudence,” said Lane Wolfley, Ross’ attorney.
Ross was convicted of strangling 26-year-old mother of two, Janice Forbes to death May 14, 1978 – Mother’s Day – at her Queens Avenue apartment in Victoria and served 38 years in prison for the crime.
Weeks earlier, Bowcutt was also strangled in her Port Angeles home, on April 24, 1978 with her six-month old son in the apartment.
When Ross was arrested later that year in Los Angeles on unrelated charges, the 20-year-old was charged in the murders of both women, but was extradited to Canada to face trial there first.
Dismissing a case on such grounds is “almost unheard of” as was the mishandling of evidence and unreliable police records, according to Wolfley who said officers in both Clallam County and Victoria “really messed up.”
In the U.S. any time frame over one year is considered “presumptively prejudicial” and prosecutors in Ross’ case waited four decades, Wolfley said, even though they had grounds to pursue the case.
“All they had to do was ask,” he explained. “But, more likely, they didn’t want to be bothered. Out of sight, out of mind.”
For the Bowcutt family, Wolfley said: “It’s got to be such an unsatisfactory conclusion.”
The theory Wolfley has always believed is that Ross was framed by both American and Canadian police who forged fingerprints and relied on vague, circumstantial evidence to force a confession from Ross that was never recorded, and that he denies giving.
“When it comes to an uneducated, illiterate, 20-year-old black kid from California, it worked,” Wolfley said.
Ross was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1979 for Forbes’ murder and released on parole from an Abbotsford prison in November 2016 having served 38 years.
He was promptly deported and arrested at the border in Blaine, Washington and sent to Clallam County jail where he has been held on $1.5 million bail ever since.
To this day, no one knows why Ross was sent back to Victoria; theories have been floated that the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office felt a conviction in Canada would help their case or that Ross agreed to be extradited to avoid the death penalty in Washington State.
“I can’t make heads nor tails out of it,” said Wolfley. “When [the prosecuting attorney] did that, he lost control over Mr. Ross.”
For 40 years, Ross has maintained his innocence in both killings – Wolfley agrees, but believes the two are linked. “The same hand that committed one murder committed the other.”
Ross plans to return to California where his 10 siblings reside, to help take care of his elderly mother. Wolfley said he’s excited, but confused, unable to believe it until his freedom is returned.
There is no dispute of the facts, and the court, in dismissing the case, reached the only possible outcome, Wolfley said.
“If you had 1,000 judges across the U.S. look at this, they would all reach the same conclusion.”
Ross was released Oct. 23 following a 9 a.m. hearing in Clallam County court.
In an email statement, Clallam County prosecuting attorney Mark Nichols said his office will “aggressively and immediately appeal” the ruling.
“While we respect the court, we strongly disagree with the decision,” Nichols said. “Mr. Ross’s Victoria conviction and history of attacking women in their homes is extremely dangerous behavior and poses a continuing likelihood of substantial harm to the public.”
– With files from Paul Gottlieb