Grandmotherly Laura Park was 70 years old the October 1995 day a King County cop slapped the handcuffs on her. "You have the right to remain silent," he told the onetime state schoolteacher of the year before hauling her off to jail.
For the first time in her life, the gray-haired Park was booked and fingerprinted as a criminal, sharing space with a pair of suspected prostitutes before being sprung from custody.
Shaken, embarrassed, and confused, Park was later notified by mail she was being charged with three counts of theft for taking money from her dead mother's $200,000-plus estate. But prosecutors never gave her a chance to explain her side.
Now even King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng agrees Park was never a felon, though it was his office that falsely accused her of heisting part of the family fortune.
Informed in 1996 that the indictment was wrong "as a matter of law" according to King County Superior Court Judge Richard Ishikawa, prosecutors nonetheless pressed the case through the appeals process as well.
Both the trial court and appeals judges decided that what Maleng's office felt was a serious crime was first and foremost a probate dispute among relatives over estate funds—none of which, the courts found, Park ever misused.
Though prosecutors say the case was brought in good faith, Park's attorney and other critics suggest deputy prosecutor Ivan Orton seemed to consider the retired teacher a threat to society. He accused her of perjury and compared the elderly woman's case to the O.J. Simpson trials in Los Angeles.
Park says she was put through almost five years of emotional trauma (and upwards of $50,000 in legal costs) by charges that, the appeals court would later note, the state had no probable cause to bring in the first place.
In return, she has finally gotten an apology from Maleng's office for prosecutorial misconduct and a state-record $230,000 legal settlement from King County taxpayers. She has also forced Maleng to in essence concede—again—that his deputies have at times conducted prosecutions without adequate checks and balances.
The prosecutor's office considers the Park "mistake" a genuine rarity. "To put it in perspective," says chief of staff Dan Satterberg, "we've filed over 37,000 cases in the last five years and have been successfully sued only twice."
Wrongly accusing the innocent is considered the most egregious mistake a prosecutor can make, but preceding Laura Park's settlement, finalized last week, was Rodney Fletcher's similar settlement last year. Not only did Maleng's office wrongly accuse the 37-year-old Auburn carpenter of burglary five years earlier, the prosecutor dragged Fletcher all the way to the steps of the US Supreme Court in a costly and unsuccessful appeal to keep Fletcher's claim for damages from going to trial. Fletcher had filed suit against a deputy prosecutor whose misreading of a police report led to his jailing and indictment. But Maleng claimed he and his deputies—unlike the people they serve—were immune from legal liability. After being rebuked last year by a unanimous high court, Maleng and the county agreed to award Fletcher a $162,000 settlement.
"Quite clearly, a [prosecutorial] mistake was made; we never denied that," says Satterberg. "There was also an important legal issue to decide."
But despite the prosecutor's 37,000-to-2 scorekeeping, there have been other examples of the county's wrongful prosecution. They include Seattle resident Jerrimi Olsen, 22, who last year received an $83,000 out-of-court settlement from King County for being falsely accused of a burglary.
Prosecutors do not count that case among their false-accusation settlements, saying the blame belongs to the King County Sheriff's Office detective who arrested the wrong suspect.
Similarly, prosecutors shift the blame to Seattle police for the false felony purse-snatch charges they filed last year against Seattle artist Don Hennick, despite the fact he passed two investigative lie-detector tests (charges were dropped when an independent eyewitness came forward after seeing a Seattle Weekly story). Hennick, who is now suing for damages, claims police slanted evidence to target him, but also believes the prosecutor's office poorly vetted the case.
Rest assured, though, Maleng's office says, changes are in store. Just as the Fletcher case led to promised revisions in the way prosecutors handle initial filings, Satterberg says the Park case has prompted similar changes. He pledges an improved "information management system"—a central printout of cases and issues—that will allow more pre-filing overview and wider discussion of legal strategies.
Will that truly prevent further abuses like the Park case? Critics were surprised not only by Orton's attempt to skirt probate court with a presumptuous criminal indictment of Park (egged on by Park's disputatious relatives) but by his prosecutorial tactics: he cited both the O.J. Simpson case and that of William Stewart, former Issaquah schools superintendent convicted of harassment, as "cases with similar issues," and submitted his personal affidavit against Park testifying in rebuttal to her claims. Orton, who has received just a light reprimand, also charged that "numerous misleading and false statements [were] made by the defendant, some of which would have been the basis for perjury charges except for the statute of limitations."
That accusatory view differs 180 degrees from those of the impartial courts: Park never stole or intended to steal funds nor used any funds for her personal gain, they concluded, with the appeals court noting "the state lacked probable cause to charge Park at the time it filed the [indictment]." As Parkargued, the $38,000 she withdrew from the estate fund was payment for her unreimbursed expenses to repair her mother's home, which increased the estate's value.
Orton, a 17-year veteran of the prosecutor's office, points out that a final probate court ruling supported some of his views questioning Park's credibility, and that "Park actually owed money to the other heirs" from the final distribution of funds. But he tells us he's sorry "for anything I did" that embarrassed the office.
With Orton's high ranking in the fraud division and the office's 8,000-cases-a-year workload, might not the Park prosecution have slid by even with a new-fangled review system in place? we asked Satterberg.
"I would hope," he says, "that case would jump out at us [under the new system], due to this novel intersection of a probate and criminal case."
But why didn't that legal complication jump out at a skilled prosecutor like Orton?
"We're human, we're going to make mistakes," says Satterberg. "I think he was convinced that bank accounts were being manipulated, being changed to make a difference in the distribution of the funds.
"None of this is meant to minimize what somebody goes through when there is a mistake," Satterberg adds. "But to say the prosecutor's office is not doing the job is unwarranted."