In an About-Face, Gregoire Commutes Sentence

The governor gives a rare clemency to Gerald Hankerson, who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit.

Governor Gregoire has been known as one tough clemency judge, rejecting the petitions even of those the clemency board recommends for pardon (see Nina Shapiro's "Begging for Pardon," SW, July 4, 2007). Take Gerald Hankerson, for example: In 2007, the clemency board made him only the second person in Gregoire's first term to receive a unanimous recommendation of clemency. But his petition was opposed by both King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and the victim's family, and Gregoire denied him clemency. So it came as a big surprise last Thursday when Hankerson was called into the office of the Stafford Creek Corrections Center's superintendent and told "You're a free man." (SCCC is located near Aberdeen.) It wasn't that simple, of course; he had to agree to a seven-year set of conditions similar to those of parole. But after constant lobbying from Hankerson's supporters and a letter from Satterberg's office, this time endorsing Hankerson's petition, Gregoire conditionally commuted his sentence. On Sunday, Hankerson celebrated his release at an emotional Easter service at Greater Mount Baker Baptist Church in the Central District and later at a Renton dinner party thrown by his supporters. Locked up since he was 18, the 40-year-old Hankerson had become a cause célèbre among local criminal justice–reform activists, including the Seattle/King County NAACP and its president, James Bible. The gist of Hankerson's case is as follows. When he was 18, he says he stopped at a corner store to get someone over 21 to buy him beer. He says he saw two men chasing Nai Vang Saeturn, a 27-year-old who had just bought some pop at the store. Hankerson claims he thought Saeturn had taken their money, so he tackled Saeturn. When the other two men caught up to Saeturn, one of them, Alvin Mitchell, stabbed him to death. Mitchell told police that he and Hankerson had planned to rob Saeturn, and that Hankerson beat Saeturn while Mitchell stabbed him. On that evidence and the testimony of several witnesses, and despite some misgivings by the jury, Hankerson was convicted as an accomplice to an aggravated first-degree murder and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Later, two of the key witnesses—also teens looking to score beer—recanted, saying they had been pressured into their testimony. Hankerson's Sunday homecoming included some mention of the facts of his case. Bible talked about the numerous legal appeals, and Hankerson voiced his desire to apologize to Saeturn's family. "First chance I get I'm gonna give my apology...I wrote to the victim's family," said Hankerson. "Even though I didn't take his life, I am responsible because I could've prevented it, and my action that stopped this guy allowed it to happen." But mainly the focus was on Hankerson's life in prison and his plans moving forward. At the dinner party, Hankerson was flanked by his girlfriend Michelle, whom he met when she was a criminal-justice student and later a prison volunteer, as well as a gaggle of supporters who followed him around, including those with whom he'd served time. Hankerson reminisced about being a 19-year-old in solitary confinement with death-row inmates in Walla Walla. He ran off a list of names—Charles Campbell, Mitchell Rupe, et al.—and recalled that "they told me I was the unlucky one; they got to die, I had to spend the rest of my life in misery in prison." Hankerson and his fellow prison alums recalled his successful effort to integrate the then-all-white Concerned Lifers Organization—a move that others seemed to think was insane, and which led Hankerson to fear for his life—and that his leadership of both that and the Black Prisoners Caucus earned him the nickname "The Governor." His popularity in prison was evident from the constant stream of congratulatory calls he received from those who are still locked up. One of the calls was from Barry Massey, profiled in Shapiro's 2007 article, who at the age of 13 was sentenced to life without parole for an aggravated murder conviction. The two entered Walla Walla the same year. Hankerson calls Massey his best friend: "My better half is in prison still. I'm extremely grateful, but he deserved [to be released] more than me. The only thing I'm saying to everyone in this state, man, [is] we should be embarrassed about locking someone up for life who's 13. At what point do you forgive?" Hankerson said he wants to bring attention to ex-offenders who have been rehabilitated, so that society "can see the need to give people second chances." He still seemed to be in disbelief at his first glimpse of the outside world in more than 22 years. When another man mentioned that he'd served six years, Hankerson quipped that he'd done six years in the shower alone. And he laughed as he recalled how, at a Northgate restaurant for his first meal out, he'd tried to bus his own table. "I'm livin' the dream," he shouted across the room to Keith Brooks, a former inmate who now teaches nonviolent communication to inmates. "I can't even see this in a dream." "Me either," said Brooks.

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