Taking a second look at old sentences puts King County in the national spotlight
Fair and Just Prosecution recently invited King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and Deputy Chief of Staff Carla Lee to New Haven, CT, to speak to 25 newly-elected (and some veteran) district attorneys, academics and a Yale law students about the important role prosecuting attorneys can play in reviewing long sentences imposed in prior decades.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) is doing this through ‘second look’ case work. “A prosecutor’s obligation to do justice extends backwards as well as forward,” said Dan Satterberg.
This ‘second look’ concept includes a review of an old cases for sufficient evidence of guilt, often called “conviction integrity”, but also includes a review to make sure that the sentence imposed was fair, and consistent with current standards and practices. It also includes a review through the Clemency process, where the governor may exercise the power of commutation in extraordinary cases.
Starting ten years ago, the office began to look at the people sentenced to a life without possibility of parole (LWOP) under the ‘Three-Strike’ law, particularly those people whose “strikes” included Robbery in the Second Degree conviction. Prior to the Three-Strike law, the third robbery in the second degree might result in a sentence of two years; afterward it was LWOP. To date, 19 people who were sentenced to die in prison have had their sentences reviewed and have been released by the governor. Each person had served at least 15 to 20 years in prison, and most had made significant strides toward rehabilitation.
These commutations reflected both good behavior on the part of the incarcerated individual, and also an attempt to reconcile the practice in the 1990’s with the practice today, where most prosecutors around the state do not seek a life sentence for a third robbery.
What it deserves is a ‘second look’. Carla reviews cases with both a legal and an equity and social justice lens to answer questions like was this equitable? Was this fair? Does this long sentence improve safety? In some cases, looking back can change the current lengthy sentence and help remedy past unjust convictions or excessive sentences.
Currently, Carla is looking at 35 cases in King County. Recently, her work helped bring justice to Andrea Altheimer, who was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison for shooting and wounding her ex-boyfriend after she found him with another woman. After researching the case, the PAO concluded that her sentence was excessive, and there were grounds to decrease it by half. She was released in March 2019. Read more about her in this KUOW story.
Fair and Justice Prosecution is a national organization that brings together elected local prosecutors as part of a network of leaders committed to promoting a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility. King County is one of the many participating prosecuting and district attorney’s offices recognized as a national leader in criminal justice reform.