History looms large in race for King County prosecutor

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It’s there on a 2005 magazine cover, framed in the fourth-floor lobby of the King County District Attorney’s office at the downtown courthouse.

In a photoshoot designed to showcase his august and length of service, Norm Maleng is dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, complete with a flippant pipe and aviator goggles. The headline reads: “Why This Old Prosecutor Never Dies.”

Fifteen years after his sudden death in 2007 at the age of 68, Maleng is still loved in the office. His presence is everywhere, his portrait hidden in offices and cabins. Reprinted editorial cartoons commemorating his passing hang alongside diplomas and family photos.

Maleng first won the prosecutorial election 44 years ago – the last time it was an open race. In many ways, November’s contest to be the next prosecutor is about which candidate can capture Maleng’s legacy of integrity, justice and compassion.

It is about the potential for institutional change at a time of unprecedented pressures on the criminal justice system.

Maleng’s chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, succeeds him. After 15 years on the job, Satterberg announced his retirement last January. Now Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, is vying to take the seat.

Jim Ferrell, mayor of Federal Way and former King County prosecutor, is also in the running.

Here’s the increasingly bitter campaign landscape: The pandemic has disrupted arrests, courts and jails. The murder of George Floyd has fueled calls for immediate reforms. Violent crime rose as societal dislocations clashed with record gun sales. The Seattle Police Department has suffered an unprecedented exodus of personnel.

Satterberg endorsed Manion. Ferrell calls for new direction.

For voters, the question becomes – do you think the prosecutor’s office is responding well to these ongoing challenges? Does continuity have value? Are criticisms of programs and policies fair or do they simply exploit popular frustrations?

Undoubtedly, the overwhelming workload and internal political tensions within the Office of the Prosecutor have taken their toll.

On July 18, Senior Assistant District Attorney Jessica Berliner, one of a dozen attorneys assigned to homicide cases, sent Satterberg an email with the subject line, “My resignation.”

After 23 years, Berliner wrote, the unmanageable workload, the lack of value placed on his work, and worries about the future of the bureau’s criminal division left him with no choice.

“We are already making clearing, solving and staffing decisions for violent crimes based on volume and political expediency,” she wrote. “I fear that in the future, due to lack of resources, skills and leadership, we simply will not file the cases we have had in the past.”

Berliner was not the only prosecutor to express doubts about the leadership. In a 2019 survey of prosecutor’s office employees, 42% of respondents said they either had no opinion or disagreed with the statement: “Department leadership does what she says she’s going to do. A more recent survey in 2021 did not specifically ask about leadership.

In March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, there were 3,621 open cases in King County Superior Court – criminal charges that had not been resolved by verdict, plea or dismissal. In March 2021, this number rose to 6,139. ​​It has slowly declined and now stands at around 4,500.

A big contributor to the backlog is what the bureau calls “very serious crimes,” a catch-all of violent offenses that make up an ever-increasing share of the overall caseload. With disease precautions, jury trials take longer now. Before the pandemic, about 358 cases each month were resolved through plea agreements. This number has dropped significantly as defendants choose to try their luck in court.

Whether Manion or Ferrell is elected will determine if and how the prosecutor dismisses thousands of felony cases to get ahead of the backlog.

On August 4, a group of South King County mayors, including Ferrell, signed an open letter expressing their frustration with crime and violence.

In addition to criticizing the police reforms passed by the legislature, the mayors have attacked the prosecutor’s office. It took too long for criminal charges to be filed and resolved. Potential crimes are charged as misdemeanors or not charged at all. Juvenile and adult offenders have deferred charges, but treatment and other rehabilitation programs are limited and have no liability for failure.

“And while cities support efforts to reform criminals and stop the revolving door of incarceration by addressing the underlying conditions that lead to criminal activity, services must be available and tested, must come with consequences. if they fail, must be equitably available, and the safety of the community must be the most important consideration,” the mayor wrote.

Satterberg pushed back. In an Aug. 22 letter, he noted that the prosecutor’s office closes 20 to 30 adult crime cases each day, the majority involving violent offenses or repeat offenders.

And Satterberg noted that his office can only press charges after the cases have been investigated by police and passed on to prosecutors. Satterberg cited statistics that showed felony referrals from South King County city cops to the district attorney’s office dropped 28.5% between 2019 and 2021. The Federal Way police cases — where Ferrell is mayor — fell 29%.

When I was assigned to thresh King County courts for this newspaper in the late 1990s, I covered Norm Maleng. I remember him as an affable man who had suffered a great personal loss with the death of his young daughter in a sledding accident. He created an atmosphere where lawyers did not pass on their way to higher paying jobs in private practice. Public service meant standing up for the victim and the community.

In 2000, I wrote about the record number of drug cases going through the courthouse. Maleng established a policy that routinely charged those arrested with crack pipes encrusted with cocaine residue – an amount so small it could not be measured – with felony drug possession.

Values ​​change over time. The prosecutor’s office ended this practice years ago, and in 2021 the legislature barred from charging someone with drug possession until they were offered treatment.

Maleng’s legacy is more symbolic now. It’s about how the office is perceived in the community and how lawyers and staff see each other.

The prosecutor is an important and respected job. Voters will have to decide which candidate gets the job and how it will be defined when there is no consensus on what justice means, even by the people working there.

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