King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg Stops By The B-Town Blog For A Chat
by Mark Neuman
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg stopped by the B-Town Blog office in Olde Burien for an interview recently, at our invitation.
We covered several topics, including Operation Center of Attention, the future of capital punishment in Washington state, the toughest decisions a prosecutor must make, and even George Harrison and the Beatles.
When we first sat down with Satterberg for an interview a couple of years ago (read it here), he made us laugh summarizing his days playing for the Highline High School football team as a teenager.
“We were a small team, but we were slow,” he recalled.
He got a similar chuckle this time around when we asked: What advice do you have for anyone planning on committing a crime in King County?
“Go to Pierce County,” was Satterberg’s obviously tongue-in-cheek response. He continued with a more serious completion of his answer.
“That’s my simple advice. We actually have a good, strong public safety system here even though we have all suffered cuts across the board. But we’re never too busy take one more case.”
Capital punishment and its future
We asked Satterberg to comment on the recent announcement by Oregon governor John Kitzhaber that executions will not happen there as long as Kitzhaber is governor.
“I think the death penalty as the ultimate punishment in Washington state is applied very carefully, obviously very slowly, and it’s also very expensive,” Satterberg told us.
“There are lots of reasons to have a philosophical debate about the morality of it or the effectiveness of it.
“A governor is free to, on an individual case, grant clemency and set aside a death penalty. But you know, the people (of Washington) should have this debate. I think I’d like to see the people vote on it every 10 years: ‘Do you still want to have the death penalty?’”
Witness to an execution
Satterberg recalled serving as a witness in 2010 in Walla Walla at the execution by lethal injection of Cal Brown, who had tortured, raped and murdered 22-year-old Holly Washa of Burien in 1991.
“I volunteered to be a witness. I wanted to sit with Holly’s family who came out from Nebraska to see that and just kind of be there. We said we’d be there together throughout that whole case. It was a very emotional time for them. But I think there was a sense of relief for them.
“Now they don’t have to worry about Cal Brown anymore. They made a commitment to Holly in their hearts. It (police work, trial and appeal process) went on for 19 years. So you could argue both sides of that.
“It was a relief for them. It was also, you could say, cruel and unusual to put the victim’s family through that much. But at the end, they would have said to you ‘We are glad we don’t have to think about Cal Brown anymore. He got what he deserved.’”
Crime is way down since 1980
“The interesting thing about crime in the state of Washington in the last 30 years is that it’s actually gone down dramatically,” Satterberg told us. “I think the same is true for North Highline and Burien as well.
“The statistics are kind of shocking and I don’t know how to explain it entirely. But it goes like this: since 1980, Part One crimes, meaning murder, rapes, robbery, burglary, car theft (but excluding drug crimes), has gone down 43 percent in the state of Washington.
“At that same time, the public investment in the infrastructure that fights crime, meaning courts, police, prosecutors, judges, public defenders, jails and prisons has increased about a hundred and twenty percent.
“I think we’re doing a better job of apprehending people who are ‘in the business’ of crime: serial burglars, serial car thieves, sex offenders and we get them earlier in the process and we send them to prison for longer sentences.”
Visiting lifers in prison
Satterberg, who has served as county prosecutor since the spring of 2007, spent an evening about a year ago with the Concerned Lifers group at the state prison in Monroe.
“I was a guest and I sat in a room with about 40 men who have been sentenced to life in prison,” Satterberg said. “I just really wanted to hear from them about the system, the criminal justice system they were unwilling participants in, and ideas for reform. It was a very, very meaningful night for me. I learned a lot.
“One of the things I learned was that there are a lot of thoughtful people in prison. And there is a lot of talent behind bars who’ve done terrible things, many of whom accept the fact that they took a life or multiple lives and they know they’re not getting out, they don’t deserve to get out but they still want to be able to give back to the community.
“And one of the things they want to be able to do is to have their stories to be a lesson for young people who are just now dabbling in crime: ‘Don’t do the things that I did that led me this way.’
“So we’re actually working with some of the offenders who have been released, some of the Three Strike Robbery Two defendants who’ve been granted clemency and finding appropriate ways for them to talk to first offenders in the juvenile system.”
Tough and controversial decisions
“One of the great things about being prosecutor is that you have a lot of tough decisions and sometimes they’re internal. Who do I hire? Do I need to let somebody go? We have almost five hundred employees,” Satterberg said.
“I guess the thing that people need to know is that our office is full of really good, smart, caring, dedicated people who at some sacrifice to compensation decided to work for the public, and they love representing the people and they love coming to work and doing the right thing.
“In the last three-and-a-half years we have lost some 50 positions in our office: 36 prosecutors and 15 staff. So I had to make some tough decisions that have really kept me up at night.
“On the professional side we make death penalty decisions regularly and we decide whether we’re going to accept a plea to something less than charged. We evaluate cases and you have to make decisions on a regular basis.”
End of Part One.
Be sure to check back to The B-Town Blog tomorrow for Part Two.