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This Is How Reactionary Prosecutors Thwart Criminal Justice Reform


Thomas Butler thought he might finally get the prospect to go home.

In 2010, when Butler was 26, he was sentenced to life without parole in prison under Washington’s persistent offender statute, higher often known as “three strikes.” Passed by voters through the height of the “tough-on-crime” hysteria of the Nineteen Nineties, the three strikes law requires mandatory life sentences for people repeatedly convicted of certain crimes, including robbery, assault and homicide.

Amid the 2020 nationwide protests over racism in policing and incarceration, Washington’s three strikes law was an obvious goal for reform. It has resulted in life without parole sentences for many individuals, including Butler, whose crimes didn’t end in death or long-term physical injury for the victims. Although Black people represent just 4% of the state’s population, they account for 38% of individuals sentenced under three strikes.

Lately, the state legislature removed robbery within the second degree, the act of taking someone’s property without causing bodily injury, from the list of crimes included within the three strikes law. Because one in every of Butler’s strikes was a second-degree robbery conviction, he became eligible for resentencing last yr.

By then, Butler had spent about 17 cumulative years behind bars. He had quit drugs, joined the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, signed up for the academic classes available to him, and commenced allowing himself to hope for a future outside of prison. When he came upon he was eligible for a latest sentence, he thought he had a superb likelihood of going home soon.

“I’m not a nasty person anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s no reason to maintain me locked up.”

But when the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed its sentencing transient last yr, it asked for Butler to be resentenced to 62 to 72 years — a de facto life sentence.

Butler, who’s Black, was convicted in Spokane County, which is 2% Black. His case falls under the jurisdiction of Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell, who’s married to a girl who has publicly described herself as a “proud white nationalist.” Last month, Butler’s lawyer asked Superior Court Judge Julie McKay to remove Haskell’s office from the case, citing concerns that Butler can be treated more harshly due to his race. McKay is anticipated to announce her decision at a Wednesday hearing.

Haskell, who’s up for reelection this yr, declined to comment for this story. But his handling of Butler’s case shows how prosecutors can use their broad discretionary power to effectively gut well-intentioned criminal justice reforms.

Haskell’s office arrived at Butler’s latest, near-life sentence by selecting to stack six firearm enhancements, each of which carries several years in prison, on top of a base sentence of 32 to 42 years. If Haskell gets his way, Butler, an intended beneficiary of the three strikes reform bill, will likely still die in prison.

“What’s the purpose of constructing me undergo all this? Take my life sentence and provides me one other life sentence?”

– Thomas Butler

In 2000, just after his seventeenth birthday, Butler was convicted of second-degree robbery and spent several months in jail. His second strike was in 2002, when he robbed a bank and was sentenced to six.5 years in prison. During that point, “I sort of just sat across the prison, hanging out, becoming a worse person,” Butler said. Shortly after he got out of prison, Butler attempted to rob a house that he believed had drugs inside, only to get shot within the arm and the spine by one in every of the people he tried to rob. In consequence of the shooting, Butler needed to have surgery on his back and have his kidney removed, and continues to experience partial paralysis in his left leg.

When Butler woke up within the hospital after the attempted robbery, he was facing his third strike.

Haskell, who also worked on Butler’s case at trial as a deputy prosecuting attorney, offered him a lesser sentence if he agreed to plead guilty, but Butler went to trial and was convicted. Along with the life without parole sentence mandated by the three strikes law, he received several gun-related sentencing enhancements.

“After I lost the trial, I used to be pretty hopeless. I went back to prison just offended, scared and hopeless,” Butler said. With nothing to stay up for or work toward, Butler wound up getting in fights and in search of out drugs, he said. After eight years, something modified.

“I discovered God. I discovered hope. I discovered purpose. I discovered value,” Butler said. “It modified my perspective. It was a paradigm shift,” he said.

“Now I’m just attempting to make myself a greater person and make the people around me higher. Hopefully, someday they’ll open up these doors,” Butler said. “And even when not, at the tip of the day, it’s higher than simply living a hopeless life.”

Thomas Butler at Clallam Bay Corrections Center together with his children in 2018.

courtesy of Cassandra Butler

In 1993, Washington became the primary state within the country to adopt a 3 strikes law after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative. In the next years, as politicians won elections through racist fearmongering about so-called “super-predator” youth, Washington state lawmakers expanded the definition of a “persistent offender” and mandated life without parole sentences after two strikes in certain cases.

Around this time, Washington voters approved “sentencing enhancements” — additional years tacked on to a jail sentence — for individuals who commit felonies while armed with a weapon. Because enhancements are served consecutively, some individuals find yourself doing more time in prison for enhancements than for the underlying crime. Nearly one-third of individuals in Washington state prisons who’ve multiple weapons enhancements are Black, in accordance with Seattle-based news outlet PubliCola.

There is no such thing as a evidence that three strikes laws or weapons enhancements deter crime or improve public safety. Still, these laws have remained largely intact. In 2019, state lawmakers dropped second-degree robbery as a strike, a modest reform effort that left in place extreme mandatory sentences for other crimes. It took one other two years for lawmakers to make that change retroactive, making about 114 people eligible for resentencing.

After the three strikes reform bill became retroactive, Butler was transferred from state prison to the Spokane County jail to await resentencing. His lawyer, Stephen Graham, asked for a latest base sentence of 20 years, plus 5 years for the weapons enhancements, arguing that the prosecutors’ request for a de facto life sentence constituted cruel and strange punishment for crimes wherein no victim was killed or seriously injured.

While Butler was awaiting resentencing, the Inlander published an in depth investigation into Haskell’s wife’s racist online presence. The Inlander found Lesley Anne Haskell’s accounts on Facebook and Gab — a social media site popular amongst white nationalists — where she posted and reposted hateful screeds against Black people and transgender people, and made false claims about white people being under attack.

She described Black Lives Matter activists as “the true terrorists in America,” suggested that each one transgender persons are “mentally in poor health,” called MSNBC’s Joy Reid the “true definition of the word ‘n****r’” and described herself as a “proud, white nationalist (NOT supremacist).” She steadily interacted with white nationalist figurehead Nick Fuentes and claimed, “Our race is dying, we want to make more White babies.” She described her husband, “the Spo Co Prosecutor” as “the last line of conservative armor that the County has.”

Asked to comment on his wife’s posts, Haskell told the Inlander that his wife “is a strong-willed one that will speak her mind” and claimed that her thoughts and beliefs had no influence on his actions as a prosecutor. “Succinctly stated by the US Supreme Court, ‘guilt by association’ is “one of the vital odious institutions in history,’” Haskell continued.

In May, Graham, Butler’s lawyer, asked the court to disqualify Haskell’s office from working on Butler’s case, citing his wife’s comments. Graham also noted that Haskell had disproportionately sought stacked weapons enhancements against Black people between 2008 and 2009, across the time of Butler’s three strikes trial.

“The events have undercut the general public’s faith in our court system,” Graham wrote in a court filing. “Mr. Butler and his family deserve the peace of mind that Mr. Butler is being judged by his actions alone, without being treated a certain way attributable to the colour of his skin.”

McKay is anticipated to determine on Wednesday whether to dismiss Haskell’s office from the case. If she allows him to stay on the case, she may additionally make a call about Butler’s latest sentence. Butler awaits his fate from county jail, where he spends between 22 and 24 hours a day locked in his cell.

“What’s the purpose of constructing me undergo all this? Take my life sentence and provides me one other life sentence?” Butler said. “I could’ve just stayed where I used to be and also you guys could have filed the paperwork and altered the language on my judgment and sentencing.”

“As an alternative, you bring me all the way in which across the state, put me within the county jail, totally uproot my current circumstances after which tell me, ‘Well, that little little bit of hope that you just had, screw that, we’re gonna provide you with 62 years and also you’re still gonna die in prison.’”

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