New Laws Lead Some Washington Prosecutors to Rethink Three-Strike Life Sentences | Northwest Regional News

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Clark County Decide James Ladley could not appear to imagine what he was listening to. Earlier than him was John Letellier, a 47-year-old Navy veteran accused of what a former federal prosecutor would later name a “chippy theft” of a Subway retailer, netting $107 and a $5 reward card.

Chippy or no, a conviction would ship Letellier to jail for all times underneath Washington’s three-strikes legislation — and he needed to plead responsible.

If he went to trial, the decide advised Letellier, he is perhaps acquitted or discovered responsible of a lesser crime or …

Letellier, who dedicated the theft whereas ready for a gap at a Veterans Affairs dependancy therapy heart, minimize him off. “The upper the expectation the larger the autumn.”

The decide pressed on. “Some individuals would conclude that life with out parole is extra onerous or worse than the dying penalty. If I sentence you to life with out parole, this file that I am holding will get previous, it’ll get dusty, it’ll get moldy, and you’ll nonetheless be sitting there.”

Go away and give it some thought, he advised Letellier. Eighteen days later, Letellier got here again. He pleaded responsible, although he stated he believed three strikes to be unconstitutional.

That was 1999. And sit in jail Letellier did, even after the Legislature in 2019 dropped second-degree theft — the cost Letellier pleaded responsible to — from the listing of strikeable offenses. Life in jail is simply too extreme a punishment for the crime, which typically entails no weapon or bodily harm, lawmakers determined, however they did not make the change retroactive.

But, Letellier obtained out. He was launched after 21 years in July 2020. He died of pancreatic most cancers three weeks later, at 68.

He would possibly by no means have been launched however for a brand new willingness to query the tough-on-crime ethos of previous a long time. Amongst these asking questions: prosecutors, the very individuals who have enforced that ethos however are actually coping with a legacy that some imagine violate what Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell calls “an evolving customary of decency,” to not point out requires racial fairness.

The state Supreme Courtroom is scheduled this week to debate whether or not it’ll delve into this evolving customary, by accepting or declining to evaluate a case that would probably free dozens of three-strikes prisoners.

Following the legislation enforcement killing of George Floyd, policing has grabbed the lion’s share of consideration in the case of reforming legal justice. But, statistics reveal stark racial disparities in who goes to jail, and for a way lengthy.

In Washington, there may be in all probability no larger instance than the three-strikes legislation accepted by voters in 1993 — the nation’s first and an embodiment of the tough-on-crime period, designed to make sure “persistent offenders” would by no means be free to commit extra crimes. Judges are required handy down life sentences to repeat offenders of a wide selection of crimes, from homicide and rape to theft and assault, and yearly, extra women and men are sentenced underneath the legislation.

Whereas a majority of three-strikes prisoners are white, as was Letellier, Black individuals, representing about 4% of the state’s inhabitants, account for 38% of 289 present three-strikes prisoners sentenced in Washington (together with eight transferred to different states), in accordance with essentially the most complete knowledge launched to this point by the Division of Corrections (DOC), supplied to The Seattle Occasions in December. A further six of 16 individuals who died in jail whereas serving three-strikes sentences had been Black.

Camara Banfield, chief legal deputy of the Clark County Prosecutor’s workplace, which petitioned a decide on Letellier’s behalf, stated her workplace now thinks rigorously earlier than it prosecutes a case that can set off the three-strikes legislation. “Individuals are actually contemplating … what’s the hurt that nice that you simply really ought to take somebody’s liberty away for the remainder of their life?”

It is a matter of debate, as evident from what occurred after the Legislature eliminated second-degree theft from the strike listing however did not make the change retroactive. Legislators adopted up with one other legislation, which took impact final June, that permits prosecutors to hunt resentencing when an authentic sentence “now not advances the pursuits of justice.”

But, prosecutors across the state do not agree on whether or not the resentencing legislation can or ought to apply to three-strikes circumstances — main Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat who chairs the Home Public Security Committee, to say he worries about “justice by geography.”

Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic opposes utilizing the brand new legislation to get three-strikers out of jail. “They put themselves there. Nobody else,” he stated.

To renege on life sentences lessens accountability to victims and could be deeply unpopular with the voters who elected him, Brusic continued. “I assure you, individuals in Yakima County should not going to have a positive response if we begin resentencing persistent offenders.”

Elected officers till just lately have tended towards the identical judgment in regards to the state as an entire, which has been slower than many others to revisit three strikes. A minimum of 29 states eased necessary penalties by 2014, in accordance with a Vera Institute of Justice report.

John Carlson, the conservative talk-radio host who co-sponsored the 1993 three-strikes initiative, is watching to see if Washington’s Legislature goes additional. One invoice within the coming session, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat, would give these with a second-degree theft strike precedence earlier than an expanded state Clemency & Pardons Board, and one other invoice taking on retroactivity is anticipated.

Neither altering requirements nor racial disproportionality has lessened Carlson’s perception in three strikes, which he stated punishes conduct not shade. Whereas he has sometimes supported releasing prisoners primarily based on their habits behind bars, together with Letellier, he stated he’ll run a good harder three-strikes initiative ought to legislators weaken the prevailing legislation.

“It is already been drafted.”

Evolution of the legislation

Ever since three strikes was enacted, individuals have argued about whether or not these it targets deserve their destiny. And but, it has been surprisingly arduous to trace what crimes they dedicated. The state stopped reporting the data of three-strikes prisoners after 2008 and solely just lately resumed.

However a Seattle Occasions evaluation of DOC knowledge for the 289 present three-strikes prisoners reveals greater than half, 155 individuals, obtained a life sentence after assault, housebreaking, theft or drug-related convictions triggered the third and remaining strike.

Some beforehand dedicated extra extreme crimes. About half of present three-strikes prisoners have homicide, manslaughter or intercourse crimes on their file.

For 56, virtually one in 5, their data consist fully of lesser crimes, together with assault, housebreaking, theft or drug-related offenses.

Because the Legislature thought of dropping second-degree theft from the strike listing, the Washington Affiliation of Sheriffs & and Police Chiefs objected, saying many three-strikes prisoners had initially been charged with extra severe crimes and pleaded to lesser offenses.

Some had used a weapon, or threatened to, the affiliation wrote in a letter to legislators. On an inventory of examples was Letellier.

When the tall, slender man with reddish brown hair walked into the Subway, intoxicated, he motioned to his jacket pocket and stated he had a gun, in accordance with police data. He was pretending, he advised an officer.

A sufferer does not know that, stated Brusic, the Yakima County prosecutor, and the trauma could be lasting.

Legislators, in a cope with the Washington Affiliation of Prosecuting Attorneys, agreed to nix retroactivity, leaving 64 individuals with a second-degree theft strike in jail.

In stepped Dhingra, who’s a King County prosecutor in addition to legislator. She successively pitched the invoice to let prosecutors sift by circumstances and select ones they imagine acceptable for resentencing.

“That was completely the intent, to deal with the theft two convictions,” Dhingra stated, although the invoice was meant to use to circumstances past three-strikes, too. “At the moment, we weren’t clear on how it could play out and what hurdles there could be.”

The most important, contend Cornell and a few fellow prosecutors, is the legislation itself.

Cornell sympathizes with its intent, saying society has moved towards a larger give attention to rehabilitation and mercy. But, he stated Dhingra’s invoice did not give specific authority to undo necessary sentences like three strikes. So he believes prosecutors and judges are sure by the legislation in impact when a criminal offense was dedicated.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is aware of in any other case as a result of he helped a three-strikes prisoner get resentenced — earlier than Dhingra’s invoice took impact.

Lengthy arguing justice must look backward in addition to ahead, Satterberg has for reviewed three-strikes circumstances with a watch towards supporting clemency. The board and Gov. Jay Inslee have been receptive in recent times, seemingly partially on account of compelling petitions ready by the Clemency Challenge’s high legal professionals, stated Tip Wonhoff, the governor’s deputy common counsel. By Wonhoff’s depend, Inslee has granted clemency to 36 three-strikes prisoners.

However clemency is a sluggish course of, Satterberg stated, and granting it a political threat. Going earlier than a decide is extra direct, and that is what he did in 2019 on behalf of a person who struck out in 1999 on second-degree theft convictions after robbing two banks by passing notes to tellers.

Satterberg sidestepped the necessary sentencing concern by persuading a decide to vacate the convictions and permit the person to plead responsible retrospectively to theft, which isn’t a strike.

The Clark County Prosecutor’s Workplace basically adopted this inventive method when approached by Letellier’s lawyer, former U.S. Lawyer for Western Washington Mike McKay. Now in non-public apply, he had been requested to tackle the case by the Seattle Clemency Challenge, which matches long-serving prisoners with top-flight legal professionals.

“The elimination of theft within the second diploma from the three-strikes legislation presents a dramatically totally different authorized panorama than the one which existed when Mr. Letellier was sentenced in 1999,” learn a joint movement, asking that he be allowed to swap out his plea.

“If Mr. Letellier was dealing with the identical cost in the present day … he would seemingly be sentenced within the vary of 43 to 57 months in jail.”

That vary would consider three earlier robberies. In a single, he hit a person with a wine bottle after an evening of consuming and tied him to a mattress with sheets and neckties.

Letellier had as soon as been a quiet, good child who knew every little thing about sports activities, stated his brother Jim Letellier, a retired electrician in Gig Harbor. However medicine had been his undoing, and after roughly two years within the Navy, he was typically homeless.

“I assumed he’d be higher off in jail,” Jim Letellier recalled considering after his brother’s final arrest, although he referred to as the life sentence “grossly unfair.”

Jennifer Smith, a lawyer who co-founded the Seattle Clemency Challenge in 2016, stated she thought: “We will go into prisons and meet individuals who have life sentences who’re simply, you already know, completely depressed and have given up.”

“That is not what we have seen.” Many individuals “discover one thing in themselves and say, ‘Even when I am right here for all times, I’ll make one thing of my life.’ “

Letellier, in jail, turned energetic in Alcoholics Nameless. He joined a bunch referred to as the Redemption Challenge and was requested to function a facilitator for a restorative justice program. He took up drawing cartoons, a whole bunch of them, evenly making enjoyable of inmates and guards.

In the long run, he obtained so sick McKay did not assume Letellier might make it to courtroom for resentencing. The lawyer referred to as the Clark County prosecutor’s workplace, which agreed to bypass a listening to and easily dismiss the theft cost. Lettellier was in a hospice room overlooking downtown Spokane by 5 p.m. that day, McKay stated.

Open to consideration

The restrictions some prosecutors see within the resentencing legislation don’t essentially imply they’re unwilling to evaluate circumstances.

In August, Cornell advised the state Supreme Courtroom he wouldn’t battle a petition for launch made by Lawrence Fillion, who struck out on a second-degree theft conviction that concerned stealing beer and cigarettes. Fillion argued that his life sentence, in gentle of the elimination of the crime as a strike, constitutes merciless and strange punishment and violates the constitutional proper to equal safety.

Cornell stated he agrees, and the concession means there isn’t any opposition. If the courtroom agrees to simply accept the case, scheduled to be mentioned Thursday, and sees the problem the identical means, it might successfully free all prisoners with a second-degree theft strike.

Cornell and different prosecutors are additionally following Satterberg’s lead by supporting three-strikes clemency petitions.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett stated she started a evaluate of 89 circumstances after taking workplace in 2019, discovering 23 with second-degree theft strikes. “It involved me,” she stated.

Some additionally had dedicated extra severe crimes, together with homicide; Robnett just isn’t fascinated by advocating for his or her launch. With a number of others, she is.

At a Sept. 10 listening to of the Clemency & Pardons Board, which makes suggestions to the governor, prosecutors from Robnett’s workplace spoke in help of Marcus Worth and Kenneth Donald.

Each had been sentenced within the early years of three strikes, and had just lately gotten the eye of the Seattle Clemency Challenge. Their circumstances earlier than that had been largely forgotten and each spent a long time in jail and not using a go to from anybody.

“This was my burden to hold,” the 52-year-old Worth stated in a cellphone interview from jail, explaining why he did not ask his three daughters to come back.

Worth described his youthful self as “very immature and really silly.” At 17, he and an AWOL soldier robbed a video retailer at gunpoint. It later counted as a strike though three strikes wasn’t enacted till 9 years later and he was a juvenile when he dedicated the crime. A lawsuit introduced by one other three-strikes prisoner, earlier than the state appeals courtroom, challenges the constitutionality of such juvenile strikes.

In his 20s, Worth was convicted of robbing and trying to rob a deli and grocery.

He stated he was numb when he was obtained a life sentence in 1995, however “had to determine a approach to make myself an individual I might stay with.” He took lessons supplied although a neighborhood school, turned a devoted welder and devoted himself to Islam.

Worth and his supporters — together with Assistant Chief Felony Deputy Brooke Burbank of Robnett’s workplace, who referred to as Worth’s rehabilitation “extraordinary” and cited his younger age when committing his first strike — outlined a lot of this to the board. It voted unanimously to suggest clemency.

It voted the identical for Donald, a Vietnam veteran who dedicated a string of robberies whereas hooked on cocaine. Now 70 and recognized with Parkinson’s illness, he has spent greater than 20 years in jail working diligently, the board famous, together with as a janitor, cloth cutter and stitching machine operator.

Advocates for incarcerated people have been encouraging Inslee to behave on clemency suggestions whereas COVID-19 spreads quickly by prisons. The governor commuted Donald’s sentence in December however has but to determine about Worth, who obtained the virus and has since recovered.

After launch

Wonhoff, of the governor’s workplace, stated he is aware of of three former three-strikes prisoners granted clemency by Washington governors who’ve been charged with new crimes. That is a a lot decrease recidivism price than for the overall jail inhabitants.

However a kind of crimes solid a very darkish shadow: a drug-related homicide allegedly dedicated by Stonney Rivers after being granted clemency by Gov. Christine Gregoire. Rivers is in jail awaiting trial, scheduled to start Jan. 11.

Different launched three-strikes prisoners look like constructing new, law-abiding lives. They work for a lumber yard, a warehouse, a automobile dealership, native authorities.

In 2014, Orlando Ames — who struck out on an assault conviction after an argument on a bus and would have served roughly two years if not for 3 strikes — was granted clemency by Inslee. He’d served 25 years.

He stated he was prepared, having spent a lot of his time in jail in lessons. He now helps others leaving jail because the re-entry director for the Freedom Challenge. He is married to a kindergarten trainer he met after his launch.

“I am very glad,” he stated, delighting even within the means to get in his automobile and activate music.

Every so often, Ames additionally seems earlier than the Clemency & Pardons Board, testifying on behalf of others looking for freedom.

“I am not a unicorn. There are a lot of like me,” he stated. “I would like to see others come residence.”

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(c)2021 The Seattle Occasions

Go to The Seattle Occasions at www.seattletimes.com

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