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Posts Tagged ‘Olympia’

I am here, in Olympia. Just in the nick of time, after sleeping in an hour later than I intended to. Looks like we’re starting a little late, though, so thank goodness for small, small favors. Looks like we have the full five-member contingent of the board present today (last time there were just two present, with a third participating by speakerphone) and fewer cases (eight today, twelve when we last did this in September).

One thing I forgot to do, in rushing out of the house, was to grab my camera. So I’ll have pictures today, just via BlackBerry. I’ll post those as time allows.

We’re just about to start.

*****

10:11 a.m.

First up is the case of Leon Toney, 32, who is seeking a commutation of his prison sentence. As before, I should note, I was not able to review the petition files beforehand, so I’ll be learning about these cases along with you.

Not sure what Leon’s crime is, but he is completely disabled and needs 24/7 care. Right now, he’s on an “extraordinary medical placement” in a Tacoma nursing home. His family wants his out of DOC jurisdiction so they can take care of him without the hassle of DOC rules.

The prosecutor’s office in Pierce County does not object.

But how did a 32-year-old criminal become this disabled?

Here’s the story. Wow. He was hanged in his McNeil Island Corrections Center cell in 2008. But was it a murder attempt or suicide? He’d been in prison since 1996, on a 28-year sentence for shooting a man in the stomach during a home-invasion-style robbery.

It’s been established, however, that as a result of the hanging, Toney is in a “persistive vegetative state.”

The board votes 5-0 to commute Toney’s sentence. As board member Cheryl Terry noted, “he’s clearly no threat.” Toney is here today, and one look at him in an extended wheelchair makes that obvious.

*****

10:24. a.m.

Next up is John Coleman, who is seeking the restoration of his right to run for public office after being convicted of a felony. But he’s not here. Not good form.

He was convicted of “using the telephone to facilitate the sale of cocaine” in 1995. He was released from prison in 1997, and was was released from DOC supervision in 1999.

His petition is granted by a 5-0 vote.

*****

10:29 a.m.

Next up is Emery Krahn, who is also absent. He was convicted of a marijuana offense in 2002. He’s satisfied all his post-release requirements. He’s now a community activist, and hopes to hold a school board post someday.

Another unanimous “aye” vote.

*****

10:31 a.m.

Next up is the case of Morris Goldberg, who’s seeking a commutation of his prison sentence. Here’s his story. (Short version: He participated in a 1991 murder in Spokane County, though he didn’t actually pull the trigger. He has said that he believed he was helping stopping a child molester within the family.) His advocate, a prison counselor named John O’Connell, says “he’s turned his life around.” He’s now an elderly man, O’Connell said. (He’s now 78.)

Goldberg, from prison, speaks. At the time, he felt his actions were justified. Now, at board chairwoman margaret Smith’s prompting, he says “I don’t know.” He says he felt that he was easily susceptible, “a dupe.” Sounds like he’s questioning the premise of his crime.

Interesting case. He wasn’t convicted for nearly 10 years after the crime, and even though he said at trial that he would do the crime again, he says now that he was under the influence of his then-wife (who actually pulled the trigger). Now he says he give anything to give life back to the victim, in keeping with his newfound Christian beliefs.

“I have radically changed,” he says.

He says that while he has no information that the victim, Peter Zeihen, wasn’t molesting his 2-year-old granddaughter, it doesn’t matter now. He would not now be influenced by the people who influenced him to that belief then, and as a result, he might now make different choices.

During the eight years between the crime and the trial, his ex-wife was threatening him and other family members to keep quiet, Goldberg said.

Several letters have been put forth in opposition to Goldberg’s clemency. And Cheryl terry isn’t impressed by the way he distances himself from the murder, and isn’t expressing accountability. Goldberg’s answer, basically: You may not understand, but God gets it. “He has forgiven me, and I am asking mercy from man. … I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m saying that My Father is right.”

He further says: “Whether or not you let me out of prison is irrelevant … in a few short years, I will be underground myself.”

Having sat through many of these hearings before, I can tell that Goldberg isn’t going to get clemency. His age isn’t enough, nor is his good works, nor is his Christian faith. Just as in other cases, accountability and ownership of the crime trumps all, and I can tell the board members just aren’t getting what they want to hear from Goldberg.

“I am tired. I am tired of life itself,” Goldberg says in conclusion.

Now comes three people speaking on his behalf. First up is a daughter. She apologizes for his seeming defiant tone. She is citing, heavily, his declining health. And now, also, his change. “We believe that this is a horrendous act that should never have happened,” she says.

Hers is a simple plea for mercy.

“He will be a financial burden on the prison system, and I offer my home to care for him in his final years,” she says.

Next up is Jesara (?) Goldberg, who is the granddaughter. She says “the abuse did happen.”

“That man saved my life,” she says simply, and walks away.

Next up is a 20-year friend, in from West Virginia, speaking about his pal “Mel.”

Here’s more about the case. I now recall that I actually covered this 2004 hearing for the hometown weekly paper (Newport News-Miner? Something like that.). I remember getting paid $75 for it, anyway.

“He was rather henpecked by his wife. She wore the pants in the family,” the friend says.

Another friend says: “He’s a wonderful man. He’s no threat.

Now comes the opposition, in the form of Steve Tucker, the Spokane County prosecutor.

“This was one of the more sensational murder murders in Spokane County,” because he was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time he took a 12-gauge shotgun blast — in the head.

“They did a great job of covering it up because they covered it up and nobody would talk,” Tucker adds. None of the evidence could be directly traced back to the perpetrators.

Tucker insists that there was no sexual abuse, that his now-deceased daughter made up the story.

Goldberg’s trial quote is memorable in law-and-justice circles, Tucker says: ‘”I’ll make this easy for you. I did it, and I’d do it again.'”

Goldberg’s serving 26.6 years, “and that’s what I would ask that he serve.” The ex-wife, JoAnn Peterson, is serving 25 years.

Next up: Dave Salsman, a first cousin of the victim, Peter Zeihen.

“He had the chance to set the record straight for his granddaughter … and he didn’t do it,” Salsman says of Goldberg.

Also: Salsman says the family took pictures of Zeihen’s corpse as “family show-and-tell.” He says that should Goldberg get out, “I’m afraid, not just of him but what he’ll bring out on the streets with him. … For God’s sake don’t let him out.”

Board member John Turner moves that the clemency petition be denied. Board member Raul Almeida seconds it.

Board chair Margaret Smith says that successful cases should be “extraordinary,” and this case just doesn’t meet that threshold. His health problems aren’t grave, she says, and his good conduct in prison is only what’s to be expected. But mostly, “I don’t believe that Mr. Goldberg has expressed remorse,” she says.

Terry agrees. And Smith isn’t impressed by the age arguments, pointing out that he chose to particpate in murder when he was 60 years old. She still thinks he’s a threat to society. “I don’t think we’re in any position to be taking any chances,” she says.

The vote to deny is unanimous.

*****

11:33 a.m.

Next up: The case of Kevin Bingaman, who’s asking for a commutation of his prison sentence. Can’t find anything on the case, but his mother is here , pleading for mercy on medical grounds. Bingaman apparently was in a serious accident, “and his life expectancy is that he won’t live to be 25 because of the pressure on his brain.”

Odd case, timingwise. He was convicted of his latest offense in April 2008, and his earliest release date is July 2010. The board is historically unkind to petitioners who can’t hold their water and serve out their time when there’s so little time left to serve.

But the board’s concern right now is a pattern of criminal behavior dating back to his juvenile days.

His mom: “I believe that since Kevin has been incarcerated, his thought processes have changed.” Which doesn’t make sense: If his previous choices were about neurological impairment, how can behavior modification change that?

I don’t know much about his accident, but he was in a coma for seven days and everybody here seems to agree that it was a miracle that he survived. Mom wants her son to have access to medical marijuana. He had it at home before he was imprisoned, per a doctor’s prescription, she says. She says he gets nothing for the pain now.

His latest crimes were triggered by access to alcohol in the home, it comes out.

Mom has faith in her belief that Kevin has changed, and that if released, the old problems wouldn’t resurface.Margaret Smith empathizes, saying she has crippling migraines herself, but she’s thinking it would be better to work with the DOC to get him the pain meds he needs.

Bingaman speaks: “I’m in excruciating pain.” And: “I know what I did was wrong, and I’ve learned.”

Kevin’s grandmother speaks. She spends 4-6 hours a week with him in prison, and is convinced his turnaround is real.

Board members are still unconvinced that Kevin will have the structure he needs to stay out of trouble, supervised only by a mom who’s out of work and needs a job. The plan seems long on promises and short on safeguards. “Once you go back to work, who will be responsible for his structure?” Cheryl Terry asks. Respite Care, she answers. And grandma will be involved too, she says.

Apparently, he lives in Anacortes, and was in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after his accident. I still has no specifics on that. The discussion has sidetracked into the minutiae of his medication.

And now we’re back on track. “Since Kevin’s been incarcerated, he has grown and matured,” his mom says.

A family friend says that she’s seen him grow and become more accountable for his actions. Kevin himself speaks up and says he’s learned to make better choices about friends (apparently, it was old friends that got him the alcohol that got him in the trouble that got him in prison today).

The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office, where Bingaman was sentenced and apparently committed his crimes (burglary and theft with a firearm, among other charges), says it already has shown leniency through reduced charges and lenient sentencing recommendations. They ask that the punishment not be reduced any further. He’s serving 24 months now

His current release date is March 2010, Turner says. Mom says July; DOC agrees.

Amanda Lee, of the board, is leaning toward clemency on medical grounds. she’s be OK with it if he were put on an ankle bracelet to provide the accountability and structure the board seems concerned about. She doesn’t want the discussion to devolve into a referendum on medical marijuana.

But Almeida and Turner stand against it, citing the criminal history and the short sentence, as well as concerns about community safety. Terry agrees, citing the role of prison structure in Bingaman’s turnaround. Smith concurs.

The vote: 4-1 to deny Kevin Bingaman’s plea for commutation.

*****

12:13 p.m.

Next up: Margaret Haines. Again, I’ve been able to find no background on her. She’s here, seeking a pardon.

She was born in the slums of Calcutta, abandoned by parents into orphanages in the 1970s. She knew neglect, abuse and poor nutrition, her attorney says. Nobody even knows her real age. But she was adopted by an American family. That didn’t end her troubles, as she had trouble adapting to American ways.

Add “teenagers, alcohol and boys,” the lawyer says. She got pregnant, collided with her family, ran away, “got picked off by predatory elements” and pushed into prostitution. But she eventually met her husband, slowly got out her lifestyle, got good jobs, and became educated with managerial jobs. She earned certification as a nursing assistant, lives in the Seattle area.

Her convictions are for prostitution, and the felony convictions prevent her from performing more than limited duties as a nursing assistant.

“Two words describe her: Resilience … I’m impressed that she’s not embittered toward life considering where she came from. The second is compassion.”

Haines speaks: “I believe I have gotten the fairytale that many people dreamed about … having a great home, a great job and a great family.” She doesn’t blame her adoptive mom, and has repaired that relationship.

“I do have a dream, and that is to become a nurse someday. I believe in my heart and soul that nobody should be alone in life.”

What are her goals? Smith asks.

She wants to get into the nursing program at Shoreline Community College and then to the University of Washington, to become a registered nurse.

The lawyer says it’s impossible to completely trace Haines’ complete criminal history, as many aliases were used during arrests from 1988 to 1993. She had no ID, no valid birthdate. Six convictions are included in the record, per the Washington State Patrol’s WATCH report.

The husband is a MUCH older man. I’d say there’s at least 25 years between them. She has a child who just graduated from high school. They’ve been married 14 years

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg personally wrote a letter supporting a pardon for Haines. Smith calls that “extraordinary.”

Says Lee: “You’ve done amazing things with your life. It’s clear that you’ve left your criminal history behind.”

Says Turner: “Sixteen years crime-free … that to me speaks mountains.”

The vote is 5-0.

Last case coming up shortly, as one apparently dropped off the docket.

*****

12:42 p.m.

Last up: James McMillan. Again, I can find nothing on this case online. He’s seeking a pardon.

He is here. Nice-looking, well-groomed man in his early 30s, I’d say. (Boy was I wrong; he’s 46.) He’s got a 2004 conviction for fourth-degree assault.

He wants to join the District 17 fire department out of Roy, in southeast Pierce County, but the conviction’s in the way. “They don’t want people who might explode under pressure,” he says. He not only wants to join the fire service but he wants to rejoin the National Guard, as he’s otherwise eligible to do as befitting his age and prior military service.

He cites a horrifically abusive childhood, and the inevitability that it would surface within him. But he’s taken medication, gone into counseling, changed his nutrition so he could get off the meds. He says he’ll live if he doesn’t get the fire department job, as he currently owns a painting business. “I’ll just keep trying to build that up,” he says.

The victim, a former girlfriend, has forgiven him. They even got back together after he made amends. “It was important to me to be a good parent and break that cycle of abuse,” he says. The relationship later ended for other reasons, and his current girlfriend is here with him today.

Turner, however, is hestitant because “we don’t know much about you. Your file is pretty thin. And, as you know from the news these days, we can’t give pardons very easily.”

The board voted no, but encouraged him to come back soon with a stronger petition.

And that’s a wrap. The last meeting went till almost 6:30 p.m. Today’s ends at 12:56 p.m.

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It’s been 13 days since my last blog post.

I haven’t abandoned this site by any means. If anything, my problem is that on some level, I want every blog post I write to be substantive and timeless. I realize on the level on which I usually operate that such an idea is ridiculous — that this is a blog, and not “Remembrance Of Things Past.”

All the same, it’s important to have standards, right? For instance, I’ve been promising for some time to write up my interview with Janet L. Smith, the Seattle mystery author who dropped out of the publishing scene after her third and final book came out in 1995. I met with her on Sept. 22, and have done a draft of my blog post, but want to do some fact-checking with Janet before I post it.

I usually record my interviews, but that wasn’t possible where Janet and I met — a crowded Starbucks off Aurora Avenue in North Seattle with chatter all around us. I took copious notes instead. In my newspaper reporter days, I would have trusted those notes and hoped for the best. But, as a blogger and budding book author, my deadline is no longer “7 p.m. tonight” but “whenever it’s ready.” As such, I choose to allow myself the non-luxury luxury of being as thorough and accurate as possible. So I’m asking Janet to help me be sure I have some facts correct before I share my understanding of them with the world. It’s all part of a standard I’ll be holding myself to in my true-crime writing — telling as good a story as possible means telling it as accurately as possible.

So, hopefully, that’ll be ready to go soon.

Same with a lengthy Q&A I conducted with Diane Fanning, one of the best-selling authors in the true-crime genre today (she’s got two books this year — “A Poisoned Passion,” about a West Texas woman who murdered her war-hero husband, and “Mommy’s Little Girl,” her look at the media-saturated Caylee Anthony child-murder case). I just got my last set of answers via e-mail yesterday, and will format them in the next day or so. I think you’ll find the Q&A interesting, in that I’m less focused on the stories — and more on how Diane tells them.

I’ve also been working on my book-review chops, too. I turned in a lengthy review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s “The Road Out Of Hell,” a historical true-crime book, for Reading Local Seattle. I’ve agreed to do monthly book reviews and author profiles for that site.

Next up: A review of Clallam County author Elizabeth Sims‘ latest mystery, “The Extra.” She and I will be meeting this coming Friday for breakfast in Sequim. And, I’m working on a blog review of “The Best American Crime Reporting of 2009” anthology — a series I would almost literally kill to be in next year.

Oh, and I just published my first two pieces — here and here — for the 1st Turning Point Web site, about how to get book publicity in newspapers and news Web sites. As with Reading Local, I’ve gotten an invite to be a regular writer there, and will be filing once-a-month pieces on book-publicity ideas and observations.

Oh, and there’s work on my own book. That’s been going gangbusters, actually. Here’s what’s been going on:

Last Sunday, I had lunch in Tacoma with Les LeMieux, the man who survived a 1997 murder attempt stemming from a drug deal, and, 12 years later, supported his attacker’s release from prison. Les found me via this very blog and, after some calls and e-mails, we finally arranged a get-together. I like him a lot, and he feels at ease with me. We seem to have agreed that he’s got a hell of a good story to tell, and that I’m the person to tell it. I expect to get a copy of the state Clemency and Pardons Board file — the factual backbone of the story — in about two weeks. Once I’ve read through that, Les and I will start doing formal interviews.

Meanwhile, I’ve exchanged letters with Aaron Borrero, the man convicted of trying to kill Les. He hasn’t committed to working with me, yet, but he is willing to hear me out. To that end, he’s put me on his visitor list at McNeil Island Corrections Center, and I’ve sent in the required background-check form to the state Department of Corrections. Hopefully I’ll get that clearance soon so I can take the ferry ride to the island and see if Aaron and I can connect.

My weekends — Mondays and Tuesdays — have been spent in total-immersion research. Last week, I spent both days in the state capital city of Olympia working on a future book stemming from a 1983 case in which an 18-year-old woman shot her parents and set the house on fire to cover it up. I pulled records at the Thurston County Courthouse and found news accounts of the murder and trial at the Olympia Public Library. Olympia is an hour and a half drive from where I live, in Bremerton, but it’s a lovely place in fall and has the best sub-sandwich shop around, Meconi’s Subs. Can’t get enough of that fresh-baked bread ….

This Monday, I stop in Tacoma — for a records search at the state Court of Appeals — before returning to Olympia. On the agenda is more digging at the library, and lunch with the defense lawyer from the 1983 case. He’ll share some valuable on-the-record impressions of his teen-murderess client, who is now 45 years old — and has spent the last 26 1/2 years in prison. And on Tuesday, I’ll go to nearby Shelton, where I’m trying to learn more about the prosecutor from a 1967 case — namely, why he committed suicide in 1978. The folks at the Mason County Historical Society have been tremendously helpful in chasing down leads for me, and I hope they’ll continue to be.

These days, I’m tired, broke and overwhelmed. My car smells like ancient fast food. My feet, my eyes and my ass all hurt equally by the end of the night.

And I’m having the time of my freaking life.

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When I was younger, I pictured true-crime writers like my hero Jack Olsen as fedora-sporting, notebook-schlepping Kolchaks who slunk around the back rows of courtrooms and shook down reluctant sources in seedy bars.

A very secondary part of that fantasy was picturing these three-day-growth-of-beard wonders poking through dusty file cabinets in forgotten basements, poring through ancient papers with a penlight in their mouths against noir backlighting in search of the “Aha!” moment.

Turns out that fantasy is actually reality, sort of. Just a very non-noir recasting of it, in my experience. And, really, just the paper-chase part of it. Hmmmm. In other words, not much like the fantasy at all.

A big part of my true-crime project involves searching for stories along a common theme — crime, punishment and cases made for redemption through the Washington state governor’s office. And finding those cases, and the diamonds of the stories that I can actually use amid dozens if not hundreds of rejects in the rough, means going through a lot of process. A lot of process.

I’m not going to describe every detail, to protect my proprietary interests, but here’s an idea of what I have to do:

First comes making the formal request for agendas, going back as far as 10 years, from the governor’s office as well as the state attorney general’s office, which took over responsibility for the state Clemency and Pardons Board in 2006.

Once I get the agendas, I run the names of people petitioning for clemency and pardons through Google and other databases to get an idea of how interesting their stories might be. Not many are; the majority are people who committed relatively minor felonies a long time ago and just want to be relieved of the stigmas, real and perceived, of being convicted felons.

Sometimes I can’t find the names in the search engines precisely because the crimes are so old and so minor. That means that, in the interest of being thorough, I have to “take a flier” on cases I’m not sure about and request the files.

This is not a casual decision, and calls for some diplomatic finesse. The people I deal with, by and large, are overworked paralegals and administrative assistants. And they’re even more overworked by what I pile on their plates, because by law they have to accommodate my requests. And it’s more than just going into a storeroom and pulling files — also by law, they have to go through each page and redact things like Social Security numbers, some medical information and victim-family addresses and phone numbers. I can’t even imagine how much time that takes, or how mind-numbing that task must be.

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So I try to be judicious about my requests, not only because it’s the diplomatic thing to do, but because the more I request, the longer it takes to fulfill those requests. In some cases, I’m asking for several thousand pages. If I’m lucky, it takes two months. If I’m not, it takes upwards of six.

(See, I told you this was fascinating. Now wake up.)

When the documents are ready, I have to make an appointment with the people I’m dealing with to reserve a room at the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office, in Olympia and nearby Tumwater. They then have to “babysit” me, sometimes leafing with thinly veiled impatience through a magazine at the far end of a conference table, while I sort through for those diamonds in the rough.

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This Tuesday, about three months after I requested about fifteen case files, I kept my appointment to spend the day in the governor’s conference room, driving an hour and half from my home in Bremerton.

There, several boxes of binders and file folders stuffed with tens of thousands of pieces of paper awaited my perusal. I spent the next several hours dutifully marking those pages I wanted copied — and I was careful about that, as the state charges me 10 cents a page, which I hope to God will be deductible on my 2009 tax return. (Thankfully, the attorney general’s recently converted to electronic recordkeeping; now I just pay a dollar for a CD full of documents to be mailed to me.)

A well-prepared Clemency and Pardons Board case file typically contains the following:

— Documents from the original court file. (These are often incomplete, because they’re selected by the petitioner and thus often somewhat shaded in his or her favor.)

— A letter from the petitioner describing why he or she is entitled to get out of prison or be pardoned from a past felony.

— Letters in support of (and sometimes against) the petitioner. In a perverse twist, it’s the responsibility of the petitioner to make a good-faith effort to find people from the victim’s family or from the criminal-justice system who might be opposed. If nobody is found in advance, then the petitioner will be asked about it as his or her hearing.

— A state Department of Corrections record of the petitioner’s behavior in prison. Also a Washington State Patrol check of the petitioner’s record after prison, if applicable.

It’s no one-stop-shopping stop for everything I need, however. Usually I need to go back to the county where the case was tried and dig up the original file. I like to dig up the newspaper accounts of the crime. (Depressingly, few newspapers maintain clip files or morgues any longer. And their online electronic archives are sketchy, incomplete and often hard to search. Usually I have to get what I need from the local public library or historical society.)

I wore no fedora, needed no penlight and I already have a beard. But there were some “Aha!” moments, I’m happy to say. Of the fifteen cases I scoured through that day, I came across two very strong “possibles” for my book, and three others that bear deeper scrutiny. It was time well-spent.

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But after nearly five hours of eyestrain under the watchful eyes of the portraits of past Washington governors, it was time do something else.

I headed for the nearest seedy bar.

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