Helping Three-Strikers Walk

While a former Seattle Weekly scribe makes it happen in California, it's slower-going for local inmates serving life.

Former Seattle Weekly writer Michael Romano, now an attorney in San Francisco, received some highly flattering coverage this past Sunday in The New York Times Magazine for his efforts to free prisoners convicted under California's three-strikes law.Romano, who showed an early interest in social-justice issues in his infamous Weekly story, "Is Grunge Too White?" (Jan. 30, 1996), is head of a Stanford University clinic that has gotten the courts to reduce the sentences of 13 people who might otherwise have spent the rest of their lives in jail for offenses as minor as stealing a jack from a tow truck. Eight have consequently been released with time served, Romano says.He's been working in concert with Los Angeles County's Republican prosecutor, Steve Cooley, who has shown himself to be open to revisiting these cases. King County's Republican Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has also initiated a review of three-strikes cases. But Washington has only freed one three-striker so far, a fraction of the number released by California. Why?Romano has gotten traction by filing so-called habeas corpus petitions with the courts, arguing that sentences are unjust due to an array of mitigating factors, such as childhood abuse or mental illness.But that option is not available in Washington courts, according to Satterberg. He says clemency is therefore the only route, and it's a tough one. A prisoner must go before the state Clemency and Pardons Board, and if successful then seek approval from Governor Chris Gregoire, who has generally been loath to grant leniency. Aside from the one freed three-striker, three others have been recommended for release by the Board, and have been waiting for months for a decision from the governor.In some ways, Washington's three-strikes law is even more severe than California's. There, a defendant who is rendered "out" after three strikes receives a sentence of 25 years to life. Here, if you're out, you're really out—sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.California's law, however, is uniquely harsh, requiring only two of those three strikes to be convictions for so-called "serious" offenses. As the Times Magazine story points out, "almost any infraction beyond jaywalking can trigger a third strike."In Washington, all three strikes are supposed to be for serious offenses. Still, second-degree robberies—a designation that can be used for crimes where there is even a threat of force on the perpetrator's part—count as "serious"; such a charge might apply to a purse-snatching.State Senator Adam Kline (D-Seattle) has long introduced bills to take Robbery 2 off the list of strikes. He's never been successful. This year, he wrote in a recent newsletter, he didn't even try, given the anti-crime fury that's followed the recent spate of police-officer killings.

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