Posts Tagged ‘Prison’

It’s been a tough month.

I think I’ve been dealing with a low-grade depression the past few weeks, possibly brought on by the short days and long stretches of darkness. Getting anything done these days seems like a long, slow slog under water … and as a result, I haven’t gotten much done. I’m overdue now for not only a blog post, but a book review, a 1st Turning Point article and a long-form newspaper piece.

I’ve gathered string on them all, but haven’t wrapped up a single one.

I know writers in generally are moody bitches with overdeveloped interior lives, and I’d be curious to hear from others if they too swim through metaphorical molasses when it comes to tackling work at this time of the year. Or do they just recognize the possibility in advance and take a mental-health break? Or is it a non-issue?

Anyway, it hasn’t been a completely unproductive time. Here’s some of the highlights, lowlights and sidelights of my December so far:

• I tried to play amateur attorney with the Washington governor’s office in an effort to shake loose some documents that shed light on why Gov. Gregoire turned down the subject of one of my stories for a pardon — after her handpicked board supported the petition. I did some legal research, coming up with some reasons I felt the documents weren’t covered by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. But the governor’s office, in a letter I received Dec. 11, argued otherwise, and cited specific statutes to support its point. The documents I requested were included with the letter, however — completely blacked out. Nice touch. I think that left me feeling a bit defeated. More than a bit, really, since the simple reality is that smarter, more powerful people than me righteously kicked my ass for presuming I was fit to step into the same arena with them. I really wanted something from the governor’s office for my story besides stony silence. And I’m having to accept that I’m just not going to get it.


• I finally finished doing all my interviews for the long-form article, two months later than I had hoped. I had to let go of some prospective sources who just weren’t returning my calls or e-mails despite their initial pledges to cooperate, however, and I had to really ride herd on others who kept making promises and putting me off. Some of the squirmiest people were those who had the most to gain from my story, too, which still leaves me scratching my head. Now I just have to write the damned thing, and try to keep its length in line — which means that better than 90 percent of my herd-riding won’t be reflected in the final version of my story. I accept that … and yet, it makes me feel a bit bogged down.

• I’ve noodled every few days on the 1st Turning Point piece, the book review (on the latest true-crime compilation from Seattle’s Ann Rule) and the long-form newspaper piece, plus a lengthy blog in which I shred another true-crime book. But I can’t honestly say any of those have progressed much beyond the roughest-of-rough-drafts stage. Normally I might procrastinate a bit before I fully plunge in and bang a piece out. Not this December.

• I’ve whipsawed wildly on my fiction-writing efforts. One day, I’d dick around with the rewrite on one manuscript. The next, I’d tool around with a novel in progress. Then I’d work on an outline for another, and then pull a short story out of the cyber-trunk. It’s been something beyond ADD, like a spring-loaded 5-year-old who’s off his Ritalin dosage. All the more so because in between, I’d slump on the couch and watch five “West Wing” episodes in a row.

• Just this Monday, I made visits to see the subjects of two different true-crime stories at the state women’s prison near Gig Harbor and at the McNeil Island Corrections Center. That’s tough any time, given the general dreariness of prisons, but harder this time because both inmates were feeling pretty low. Both were feeling the pain of holidays not being spent with loved ones — in the woman’s case, loved ones she had killed — and, I think, making themselves a little crazy over the possibility of being free within a few months or a few years. (As Jeannette, the female inmate, put it: “I’m getting a little crunchy.”) And there was a new burden: As of Jan. 1, they’ll lose the right to wear their own clothes. Everything, including underwear, will be state-issued. This, I’m told, is a giant morale-crusher in places where morale, obviously, is none too strong to begin with. You may have no sympathy in the abstract for this — “It’s prison, dammit!” — but I assure you that if you get to know some of these prisoners as people, you will rethink those hardline assumptions. I left both facilities carrying a little bit of their funk with me, I think.

There were some good things, too, though. The last of my major interviews for the long-form piece was an absorbing two-hour talk with Gov. Gregoire’s former senior legal counsel. I made some pretty solid progress in getting all the interviews transcribed. (It generally takes me an hour for every 15 to 20 minutes of recorded conversation.) I attended the latest state Clemency and Pardons Board hearings, and emerged with a couple of cases worth at least knowing more about. I even came up with a quick-hit book idea that I can turn around in a few months for a small side-stream of revenue should I need it (i.e., should my ever-precarious newspaper-editing job get yanked out from under me).

The wheels are always turning. It’s just a matter of whether they do it in mud, or on pavement. And, just today, I feel the ground getting a little firmer under my feet. And I think it’ll get a little firmer still once I arise on Christmas morning, eat my usual breakfast by myself, take my usual dinner to work that afternoon, do my usual thing in the newsroom that night, and go home and put this most difficult of holidays behind me for another 364 days. And finishing something for a change, if only a blog post.

I take that as a good sign. Because a week ago, I couldn’t have even gotten started.

So, Merry Christmas to me. And to you, my readers and friends, who make me believe that my dreams of becoming a book author will someday soon come true.


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The Washington Corrections Center for Women doesn’t look much like a prison. The sprawling campus near Gig Harbor, built in the early 1970s, is occupied by comparatively modern single-story buildings. And situated alongside a major secondary road just off State Highway 16, it looks like nothing so much as a community college campus surrounded by razor wire.

Click here to see a video of life behind bars there.

It is the place that Jeannette Murphy has called home since October 1983.

Jeannette is the inmate I’ve come to visit Monday morning as I dash through an apocalypse of rain and check in with the desk sergeant. A moment later my shoes, belt and jacket are off for inspection as a corrections officer waves me through a sensitive metal scanner. All I’m allowed to bring in is a plain white card that can be used to purchase food and drinks in the prison visiting room. I’ve paid $20 for one; I’ve found that good prison-visiting etiquette dictates that I be in a position to offer to buy whoever I’ve come to see a snack or a soft drink or a cup of vending-machine coffee.

After waiting less than patiently in the downpour to pass through a series of electronically controlled gates, I enter the visiting room. It’s smaller than the one at McNeil Island but just as airy and light and almost cheerful, with kids’ toys and books stacked along one wall and a bank of vending machines against another. The room is nearly full of inmates — most of whom are wearing shapeless gray prison-issue sweatshirts and sweatpants — and their friends and family members, sitting at tables and chatting. A few are playing cards; Uno seems to be a particular favorite.

I check in with the visiting room sergeant and am told to wait at “Table 11.” This helps; as with my visit last week to McNeil Island to see Aaron Borrero, I really didn’t know what the person I came to see looked like. All I’d ever seen of Jeannette were photocopies of smudgy photos from her 1983 trial in The Olympian newspaper. They don’t assign you tables at McNeil, however, and Aaron and I had to do some awkward eyebrow-lifting exchanges from across the room before we finally figured it out.

Jeannette came in a few minutes later. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I had a vague mental image of someone who had been worn away by more than 26 years in prison. Someone maybe overweight from starchy institutional fare, as many of the inmates seemed to be. Someone with lines as deep as irrigation ditches around her eyes and mouth, with hair shot through with gray and iron-gray hardness in her eyes.

Instead, I was greeted by a slim, pleasantly chatty woman with a constant high-wattage smile. She looked no older than her age — 46 — and her black hair had a stylishly short trim. A media friend who knows Jeannette described her to me as “someone who seems like she represents the Junior League,” and I could instantly see what my friend meant. It was clear, too, how Jeannette earned her reputation as a leader among inmates. She’s an active and engaged listener, with nothing sullen or bitter sullying her disposition. I’d read a lot about how she counseled young women entering the prison, and counseled those destined never to leave the system, in their final days.

“I’m everybody’s shrink,” she said, with a bit of a chagrined laugh.

Chagrined because 26 years of listening to everybody else’s problems while keeping her own stuffed deep down inside could well be the reason Jeannette is still in prison. Even her visitors, she said, tended to use their face time with her to dump out their problems and rarely inquire about hers. I told her that in a way, I thought that made sense, that those of us on the outside can’t understand or empathize with life on the inside. And there’s the simple reality that many of us, inside and out, are self-involved and largely unable to see past the things that complicate our own lives.

Jeannette nodded at that. “You know, it’s funny,” she said, in a way that indicated it really wasn’t funny at all, “but in more than 20 years, nobody ever asked me what I did. Or if I did it.”

Ah, that “it.” I should probably touch on that.

In early 1983, Jeannette Murphy was 19 years old, and stuck. She was living in Lacey, a suburb just north of the capital city of Olympia with her parents, John and Elke, and her younger sister Natasha. She had just flunked out of Western Washington University in Bellingham (where I went to school a few years later), had no job, and was about to lose her boyfriend to the Army and a posting at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. But, by all accounts — including her own — the Murphys were a loving, functional, tight-knit family, with nary a hint of abuse. Jeannette wanted to join the Army herself, in a bid to join her boyfriend, and her parents made it clear that they didn’t think that was a good idea. There was also talk that both parents had had extramarital affairs in the past, affairs that Jeannette knew about. That, as far as anyone on the outside knew, was the extent of Jeannette’s problems with her parents.

On the late afternoon of April 22, 1983, Jeannette shot her father in the head with his .357 magnum handgun shortly after he arrived home from his job as the emergency-room administrator at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, then did the same to her mother minutes later as she returned home from her job as an accountant at nearby Fort Lewis. She then set the Murphy house on fire to cover up the killings, and left to pick up 14-yearold Natasha at school. But the fire was stopped short of completely incinerating the house, and less than 24 hours later, authorities knew the that John and Elke Murphy had been shot. Jeannette denied any knowledge.

As authorities continued to find no evidence that led them to other suspects, however, they began to zero in on inconsistencies in Jeannette’s statements. About three weeks after the slayings, she took a polygraph examination at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. When she, in cop parlance, “blew ink all over the walls,” she was confronted with her lies. But she continued to deny any culpability, and left.

From there, panicked, she tried to cash a check, using her sister’s bank account and her mother’s name, but was denied. She then hastily packed a bag, drove to Sea-Tac Airport, bought a plane ticket to Oklahoma City and hours later dropped in on her surprised, estranged boyfriend at Fort Sill. Over the next two days, she confessed to him that she had set the house on fire, saying that her father begged her to after he shot her mother and then himself. She also claimed to be pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. She talked vaguely about leaving the county, either for Germany, where her mother was from, or Mexico.

Instead, the boyfriend persuaded her to stay with friends of his in Portland while she sorted things out. He then told his superior officer, who contacted local police, who contacted Thurston County officials, Two days later, nearly a month after the killings, Jeannette was arrested in Portland. At her trial for arson and two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, she stuck to her story of denying the killings but setting the fire. But the combined weight of her own furtive actions and the lack of evidence pointing in any other direction turned the jury against her, and she was convicted — not, as the prosecution wanted, of aggravated, premeditated murder, which would have carried a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, but just plain first-degree murder. Two counts, along with the arson.

She was sentenced to two life terms plus 30 years, and with good time and parole board approval, she could have been out as early as … this year. But then the state Sentencing Reform Act went into effect in 1984, and in 1990, the state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (which replaced the parole board) reviewed all pre-SRA sentences and readjusted them to conform to the tougher SRA guidelines. The calculations get complicated, but the upshot is that Jeannette’s earliest possible release date was pushed back 12 more years, to October 2021.

In October 2021, Jeannette Murphy will be 58 years old, and will have spent over two-thirds of her life in prison. In fact, I just realized, it’ll be almost exactly the same stretch of years, over the same time in life, as was served by the fictional convict portrayed by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. Right now, Jeannette is in a peculiar place, sentence-wise. She’s considered to have served her sentence for the arson, was paroled for one of the murders in 1999, and is nearly 10 years into a revised 24-year term for the second slaying. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me, either.

It didn’t make much sense, either, to the state Clemency and Pardons board when they heard Jeannette’s petition in late April to be released early. And it was a point in Jeannette’s favor as her attorney moved on to the next point: That Jeannette has done not only good time, but great time. Between those who wrote letters on her behalf and those who actually showed up at the hearing and testified for her, some sixty people painted a portrait of her as a tirelessly sympathetic shoulder and an indefagitably hard-working volunteer. Her infraction record is pretty thin, and several prison staffers came forward to express admiration for her comportment and character.

But then came the counterweights: Her crime, and her perceived lack of ownership over it.

Jeannette publicly denied committing the murder for a long time. In fact, her first hesitant admission came at the 1999 hearing in which she was paroled for the one murder. Since then, she’s been equally hesitant to expand on it. Her attorney, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who has handled several such cases, tried to smooth it over before the board members by steering them back to her good conduct and good works. “Actions speak louder than words,” McCloud said. But board chairwoman Margaret Smith wasn’t buying in: “I get what you are saying … but I think words are important here, too.”

Her point: Without ownership of the crime — a stated understanding of what she did and why she’ll never do it again in a way that doesn’t sound scripted — board members wouldn’t feel that they could assure the governor that’ll she never do it again. And freeing a convicted murderer from prison is one of the most politically risky things a governor can do. Anybody remember Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton?

So Jeannette had to come up with the words. And, well … she just couldn’t. Not very well, anyway, even though she did manage the words: “I killed my parents.” The most she could say to explain it was this: “The crime itself is unspeakable.” That wasn’t good enough, and she knows it.

And, as we talked Monday in the visiting room, she’s aware that she choked. Part of it, she said, was that she was ill-prepared for the hearing, unaware of the format and the process. And part of it was being unprepared, period. In prison, she explained to me, it’s easy to talk about your crimes with other inmates because they’ve been where you are and “there’s no judgment in their eyes.” (Though, she said, they don’t often spill their guts to one another about their crimes.) But she’s never discussed the murders with anyone with whom she felt there was a risk of judgment. And part of the reason for that is her everybody’s-shrink quality — people come to her with their problems, she said, and she rarely feels with them that she can interject with their own.

In its deliberations, the five-member board zeroed in on Jeannette’s difficulties in accepting public responsibility for her crimes as “the weakest part of her petition.” And then the votes were taken. One board member supported her petition, citing the arbitrary inconsistency of the shifting sentencing guidelines that have governed her time. Another said, simply, “I got to think of the victims here.” In the end, Jeannette’s petition failed by a 4-1 vote. She was invited to reapply in “a couple of years.”

Another reason for why Jeannette choked, she said, is that as a long-timer, she hasn’t had the same access to mental-health counseling that shorter-term inmates have. Not all prisoners get the same privileges and program access. I imagine the state Department of Corrections’ rationale is something like: Why should we invest professional services in somebody unlikely to benefit from them on the outside … because, hello, she won’t be on the outside anytime soon? Then again, who needs help just getting by day to day more than someone who committed an “unspeakable” act? Such as, say, orphaning yourself in spectacularly violent fashion as a teenager?

But she wasn’t offered that kind of help, she told me, and as a result, all she could do was stuff the pain and the unanswered questions deep down inside. For years and years and years. She could occasionally take advantage of group therapy sessions, however, and could sometimes see a counselor (many of whom, she told me, were more interested in pumping her for gossip about other prison staffers than in helping her).

In the mystic and secretive ways of the corrections system, however, a huge silver lining emerged after the April hearing. Jeannette was suddenly given access to a top-tier therapist, with whom she does role-playing in which she reenacts the horrific events of 1983. “He really kicks my butt,” she told me. And, in a way, cooperating with me for the book I’d like to write about her story may be good therapy for her as well. That isn’t necessarily my purpose, of course, but as I sat in the prison visiting room talking and even occasionally joking with her, I realized that I liked her and was OK with the idea that she would benefit in some way from my work. (It’s important to like the people at the center of the story you propose to tell. My late mentor Jack Olsen once told the story of spending nearly a year chasing the story of a federal agent who was framed in a series of rapes in New York City. And while the facts were compelling enough for a good Olsen book, one fact stood above them all, Jack said: “He was an asshole, and I couldn’t write the book because he was an unsympathetic character — both for me to work with and the reader.”)

Jeannette, despite the fact that she murdered her parents, is not an unsympathetic character. You’ll be repulsed by what she did, but you won’t be repulsed by her. It’s an intriguing tension that I think serves her well as the central character or a book.

That brought us a big step forward from our first letters several months before, in which she expressed wariness of the media and seemed concerned that I would be focusing exclusively on the murders and the trial. So, in a reply letter and again on Monday, I reiterated my purpose: “I will not be focusing exclusively on 1983. But neither will I be ignoring it. It’s a vital piece of a larger story.” And I made clear that working together means that at some point, we’re going to have to talk head-on and in detail about the murders, about the arson, about the lies she told in the days and weeks and months and years afterward. And that she’s going to have to tell me why she did it, and that she’ll have to overcome the overwhelming instinct to talk around it.

And she nodded. She understands that. Just as she understands that I am going to interview people who may not have the nicest of things to say about her (as well as a lot of people who do). She understands that I am her storyteller, not her advocate. And, on the other hand, I understand that if my work ends up being used to advocate her the next time she comes up before the Clemency and Pardons Board … well, then so be it.

So, as our time together — nearly two hours — drew to a close, I realized that I had the same feeling with Jeannette Murphy that I had with Aaron Borrero the week before. The feeling that I had chosen well, that I had made a connection with someone capable of digging deep for me — and capable of recognizing that doing so means doing good for themselves along the way. That I had found someone with a powerful story to tell, a story that would find an audience that’s thirsty for it. We shook hands again, agreeing that I would be back to see her two weeks later.

A moment later, I stood in the relentless rain, waiting for the first of several razor-wire-ringed gates to open, feeling cold rivulets of water run down the back of my collar. And I smiled.

Because Book Number 2 is a go.

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My first thought as rains let up and the ferry drew me close to McNeil Island for the first time: Holy crap! The island is being attacked by giant mutated Slinky worms!

946162.standalone.prod_affiliate.5Yes, there really are that many loops of razor wire all over McNeil Island Corrections Center. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. McNeil may be a medium-security facility, housing short-term inmates rather than the worst of the worst, but it is a prison nonetheless — the last island prison in the United States. And the mainland isn’t far away — less than a mile in places to the north and west from where it rests in the South Puget Sound region of Washington state. And escapes were not uncommon from McNeil, at least not in its days as a federal prison prior to 1981.

McNeilmap1980In my 20-plus years as a Washington journalist, I’ve been to the prisons in Shelton, Walla Walla and Monroe to cover stories for newspapers and interview inmates. I’ve been to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor more than 20 times (and will be back next week; more on that later). But that rainy Monday marked not only my first trip to McNeil, but my first visit as a citizen rather than a journalist.

My mission: To meet with a man convicted of attempted murder, to see if he’s willing to cooperate with me for the book I hope to write about his crime.

I’ll recap here briefly: Aaron Borrero is the man, who, in March 1997, participated in the robbery and attempted killing of fellow drug dealer Les Lemieux in Kent. Borrero is the one who actually dumped the hogtied Lemieux into the Yakima River to die. By a miracle, Lemieux survived. But not knowing that, Borrero took off for California — along with girlfriend Elizabeth Hernandez, also wanted for attempted murder in the shooting of her ex-boyfriend. The two were featured on America’s Most Wanted and, after two months on the run, were turned in by an AMW tipster. Borrero stood trial in 1998 and received nearly 23 years for first-degree kidnapping and first-degree attempted murder. His earliest possible release date is early 2017.

But Borrero turned his life around in prison, taking ownership of his crimes and personal failures along the way,and his good behavior got him a transfer to McNeil. It also gave him the idea of making a bid for clemency and an early release through Gov. Christine Gregoire‘s office. At his September hearing, Lemieux surprisingly testified in support of Borrero’s early release, and an impressed Clemency and Pardons Board voted unanimously to recommend to Gov. Gregoire that Borrero be released within 18 months. Today, that recommendation awaits a decision from Gregoire. That could happen tomorrow, or next month, or a year from now. Or it could happen on the last day of Gregoire’s term. By statute, it’s entirely up to her.

I knew at that hearing that I wanted to write about this remarkable case, and I set about securing the cooperation of the two principals. Les Lemieux, who did prison time himself for drug dealing, agreed to work with me, and we started formal interviewing on Nov. 2. Aaron Borrero responded to my letter with a short one saying that he wanted to meet with me before he made his decision. And as soon as I received state Department of Corrections clearance to visit McNeil, I set a time and date through Aaron’s helpful mother.

15728306Because I was “just” a visitor this time and not going over as a member of the media (arranging formal prison interviews is a far more complicated process), I had to leave all the tools of my trade — notepad, pen, camera and digital recorder — behind in a locker on the Steilacoom side of the water. A shuttle bus then took me and a dozen or so other inmate visitors to the ferry terminal, about 15 miles south of Tacoma, and we boarded the passenger vessel Neil Henly — named for a former McNeil superintendent — for a crossing of about 25 minutes.

From Steilacoom, McNeil loomed a couple of miles southwest, its whitish-gray buildings a start contrast to the dense thickets of evergreens, cedars and maples surrounding it. It was odd to see the shoreline of a Puget Sound island waterfront uncluttered by the luxury homes that pockmarked Fox Island to the north and Anderson Island to the south.

But it made sense, given that McNeil Island has been a prison island as long as Washington has been a state, and that no private citizens have lived there since 1935. In fact, the non-building part of the island — i.e., most of it — has an otherwordly land-that-time-forgot quality. On the bus ride to the ferry headed back to Steilacoom that afternoon, we traveled through beautiful, rolling, tree-dotted greenery punctuated here and there with weathered white clapboard houses on sagging foundations that looked for all the world like something out of Depression-era small-town Saskatchewan.

That central part of McNeil looked as though the island had been evacuated by the Joad family from The Grapes Of Wrath, and left untouched since by the presence of humanity. Small wonder that the place we departed from was called Still Harbor.

On the arrival trip in the late morning, we trudged up the dock and along a winding, wire-crowded path to the building housing the McNeil visiting room, which looked for all the world like an elementary school cafeteria. Which, I suppose, was the idea — as I walked in, I saw children playing with toys, board games and coloring books at table. Their daddies, many of which had gang tattoos crawling up their necks, smiled and laughed in delight as their kids happily busied themselves. More common was the sight of adult visitors playing cards with their inmate friends and family members.

I waited at a table for just a few minutes until a handsome, bespectacled, shaven-headed, lightly complected Hispanic man in his mid-thirties walked out from the main prison housing complex and caught my eye. It occurred to me, at just that second, that I had no idea what Aaron looked like, but I felt certain this had to be him. We shook hands with a smile and sat to talk.

Within three minutes of conversation, I knew I had chosen well. Aaron is not only personable, but bright, articulate, thoughtful, possessed of a strong memory and infinitely willing to embrace his failings and his crimes. I have a pretty strong bullshit detector, but my antennae didn’t twitch in the slightest as we talked for nearly two hours. As he spoke, I developed an increasingly focused picture of a man who realizes that the key to a successful future lies in claiming complete ownership of his past.

His path to redemption began some eight years before, after a series of “dirty UAs” — positive drug tests — while he was incarcerated in the far more hardcore state penitentiary in Walla Walla. According to Aaron, the corrections sergeant who administered the most recent test said, essentially, “You’re a better person than this, I can tell … what are you doing here? I don’t want to see you here again.” And then he sent Aaron, as he was obliged to do, to “the hole.”

It was in solitary confinement that Aaron did the reassessment that started his life on a different course. Since then, Aaron’s prison record has been almost completely clean. He repaired his relationships and reconnected with a lot of his childhood friends, many of who knew him since before his days as a cheerfully womanizing football star at Kentridge High School. He embraced an interesting mix of Christianity and self-empowerment through motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins. (I got the impression that Robbins’ book Awaken The Giant Within was just about as important to him as the Bible.) He’s also a big fan of Warren Buffett, and has a deep interest in financial planning and investing.

He spoke with remarkable candor about his crimes, starting with an armed assault just after his 1993 graduation from high school that landed him in a King County work-release program. It was through a work-release contact that Aaron made his first drug-dealing connection, and from there developed a reputation through Kent as a badass drug dealer who was not above robbing other dealers. Everything he told me checks out with the official record.

Aaron Borrero doesn’t deny what his did to Les Lemieux, and their stories largely agree. But he does feel that he took the fall for the crime’s mastermind, a guy named Kyle Anderson, who managed to escape clean after two mistrials. And after reading the police documents and court transcripts from his case, I’m inclined to agree that of the three people who participated in the robbery and attempted murder of Lemieux, Borrero’s punishment was disproportionate to his culpability. In other words, he deserved the sentence he got — but the other two should have been at least equally punished. But that’s not an argument I’ll make in my book. That’s not my purpose. It’s simply my belief that once the reader takes in all the facts, that’s the conclusion they’ll come to.

Anyway, the upshot is this: Aaron Borrero has agreed to fully cooperate with me as I prepare this book (which I have tentatively titled Everybody Here Gets Out Alive). And to that end, we’ll meet every two or three weeks on Monday afternoons. He’s also agreed to help secure the cooperation of others I’ll eventually want to talk to, including Elizabeth Hernandez, the mother of his youngest child. Hernandez got out of prison in 2004, lives in the Seattle area, and the two amicably co-parent their son even though they’re no longer a couple.

So this, in essence, means that Everybody Here Gets Out Alive is a go. Even if none of the secondary characters in the story agree to work with me, I’ll still have enough material for a good book based on police reports, court documents, trial transcripts, the Clemency and Pardons Board records … and the detailed memories of Aaron Borrero and Les Lemieux.

The best ending I can think of? In my first meeting with Les, I asked him if he would be willing to meet with Aaron once all the legal issues are behind them (there’s a lifetime restraining order between the two, which is pretty much automatic for any attempted murderer and his victim, but it can be lifted if the victim wants it lifted).

He said yes.

On Monday, I asked Aaron the same question. He too said yes.

I would very much like to be present for that moment. It would be an incredible way to conclude an incredible story.

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Things are picking up.

I’ve gotten clearance from the state to visit two prison inmates who have agreed to talk with me for separate books I’m preparing, and will be seeing both within a couple of weeks: Aaron Borrero, who’s doing 22 years for kidnapping and attempted murder at McNeil Island; and Jeannette Murphy, who’s in her 27th year at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for shooting her parents in the head as a teenager and setting the house on fire to cover up the crime.

I’m also planning to meet next Monday with Les Lemieux, the victim of Borrero’s attack. I’ve received the entire Clemency and Pardons case file on Borrero — 857 pages’ worth — from the state and am picking my way through some frankly fascinating reading. By week’s end, I expect to have the transcript from the Sept. 10 hearing in which the Borrero petition was successfully heard. I’ve been calling and setting up appointments with a list of former-inmate friends Jeannette gave to me, because I want the story about her to be rich in behind-the-scenes looks at the culture of the women’s prison.

And, when time allows between all that and my regular job and, oh, you know, sleep, I’ve been working on my outline for my National Novel Writing Month project. I’m going to make time for it that I don’t really have, which will be extremely interesting. Do I have at least 50,000 words of a novel in me ready to come out of me by Nov. 30? I’ll be really surprised if I do … and really pissed at myself if I don’t. Hoo boy.

And, in the last few weeks, I’ve been building up to a whole new project that will, in all likelihood, be ready to roll by Nov. 10 or so. (As metro editor Michael Keaton’s secretary said to him in The Paper when he tried, and failed, to juggle too many people at once: “Are you completely psychotic?” To which, he replied, with dry distraction: “Eh, I have occasional episodes. Nothing serious.”)

You’ll like this one. It concerns a third story I hope to develop into a book (though it’s the one I’ve been working on the longest — nearly a year, in fact). It’s slightly self-destructive. And it’s on slightly soggy ground where journalism ethics are concerned.

Read the following and tell me what you think.

In December 2008, when I first decided to write a book about the most dramatic and interesting cases before the Clemency and Pardons Board, I attended a hearing in Olympia in which the case of Robert Holmes was aired.

In 1979, when he was 19, Holmes played a secondary, somewhat passive role in the rape and murder of a teenage prostitute in rural Snohomish County. He went on a drunken joyride with his older cousin, David Duhaime, whose idea of fun was to pick up a couple of prostitutes in downtown Seattle and rob them. One girl got away; the other wasn’t so lucky. Too drunk to act and too intimidated to protest, Holmes sat mute as Duhaime drove them to a remote spot and ordered Holmes and the girl to have sex.

Duhaime then hauled the girl out of the car, raped her and cut her throat.

The two were caught a few days later. A few months down the road, Holmes agreed to plead guilty to first-degree rape and second-degree murder, and testify against his cousin. Duhaime just missed getting the death penalty, thanks to a juror who balked at the last minute, and Holmes was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Holmes did good time, however, and was paroled after just 8 1/2 years behind bars. He went home to his native South Dakota, married his childhood sweetheart, had two daughters and scrapped about for several years in search of subsistence-level work. Several years ago, he landed a good job as a freight hauler for FedEx, and hasn’t been in a scrap of trouble since.

But Holmes has been hit by a series of setbacks in the last couple of years.

One, newly tightened Homeland Security regulations brought about a new look at everybody who held a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous-materials endorsement. Holmes, with rape and murder on his resume, was told that his CDL likely wouldn’t be renewed when it comes up again in 2010.

Two, in the wake of Megan’s Law, Holmes was required to register as a sex offender, and his neighbors were notified that they had a convicted rapist in the neighborhood.

And three, the sex-offender status caused Holmes a big problem this year, when South Dakota child protective services took his 2-year-old grandson away from his oldest daughter when he wandered away from her home a couple of times. Holmes and his wife tried to become custodial parents, but that effort went nowhere when Holmes’ criminal record came to light. The grandson remains in foster care, and Holmes gets to see him “maybe for an hour every other month,” he told me.

Talking with South Dakota authorities got Holmes nowhere, either. The answer was the same everywhere: As long as he’s got murder and rape convictions hanging over his head, the hands of bureaucracy are tied.

So, with the encouragement and help of his 1979 attorney, Holmes set about trying to get those convictions off his record, reasoning that his cooperation then and his unblemished record since was a strong basis for requesting a pardon from Gov. Christine Gregoire. After several months of preparation — digging up his past court records, recruiting several people to write letters of reference for him, verifying that his record from his 1987 release on was clean — he was granted a hearing before the governor’s five-member panel.

The centerpiece of his presentation was a surprising letter of support from Russ Juckett, the Snohomish County prosecutor who had initially pursued the death penalty against Holmes three decades before.

The hearing went well for Holmes. Despite the opposition expressed by the parents of the murdered girl, the members of the board voted, 4-to-1, to recommend that Holmes receive a pardon. I sat just a few rows behind as Holmes turned to embrace his wife and daughters.

Impressed by the story’s dramatic heft, I got hold of a copy of the petition packet, and went to Snohomish County to dig up the 1979 court file as well as clippings from the The Herald of Everett’s coverage of the case. I then approached Holmes for an interview, and we wound up meeting in May at his home in Sioux Falls.

Then, in August, came stunning news: Holmes’ petition had been denied by Gov. Gregoire. The letter sent by her office offered no explanation. I felt one was needed for my story, so I spent the next couple of months banging on doors at the state Capitol in search of a short interview with Gregoire. I was rebuffed at every turn, however. And the last door was slammed in my face when the governor’s senior legal counsel — who advises Gregoire on matters having to do with the Clemency and Pardons Board — told me last week that he wouldn’t comment because the governor is his client, and their deliberations on Clemency and Pardons Board cases are covered by attorney-client privilege.

(This doesn’t strike me as being quite right, given that she’s an elected official and he’s a state employee, and they were discussing official state business. But I couldn’t find anything in the Revised Code of Washington statutes to contradict him, and the past case law I found online seems to indicate that it’s a deep dark gray legal area. Besides, who can afford a lawyer to argue this? I sure as hell can’t.)

Still, my sense of fair play is outraged to the point that I feel compelled to do something — even as the old-school journalist in me warns me to stand down, shut up and not monkey with the machinery. A journalist reports what happens, after all. He ‘s not supposed to make things happen to report on later.

That held me back for a few weeks until, recent and uncoincidentally, I watched All The President’s Men on DVD. (It just happened to be the next movie in line in my Netflix queue.) And as I watched, I realized that what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did was just what I was proposing to do — write a story in hopes of rattling some cages and spilling out some sunshine. At least half of their published stories in what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning series appeared to be calculated to induce people to spill more information that would lead to more stories. And it worked.

That quelled one ethical dither. But another loomed: By proposing to write such a story, am I becoming Robert Holmes’ advocate rather than the objective chronicler of his story? Do I risk being seen that way?

After thinking about it a little, I’ve settled on two answers: No. And probably not.

First of all, I am the objective chronicler of Robert Holmes’ story. I’ve taken great pains to represent myself that way to him and to everyone else I’ve interviewed this year in the pursuit of this story. I like Robert, personally, but that’s not stopping me from revealing the painful details of what he did — and didn’t do — on the night of January 26, 1979. It’s not stopping me from interviewing the parents of the victim, who remain dead-set against any leniency for him and frankly think he and David Duhaime should both be on Death Row.

Second, I can’t control what other people may think.

Third, really … why would anybody think that, anyway? (Besides me in my whinier and more insecure moments?) What I’m proposing to do is write a factual story, with plenty of documents and recorded interviews to back me up, that in essence puts the question to the public: Does Robert Holmes deserve a break? Or, as a convicted rapist and murderer, did the governor give him what he deserved when she shot him down — even though she overrode the advice of her own handpicked panel in the process? Either way, does he deserve an explanation? Do the people of Washington state?

I think it’s fair and ethical for me to write a story that lays out the issue according to the facts and invites its readers raise that question on their own. The fact I that I’m trying to get readers to ask that question doesn’t ethically trouble me in the least any longer. Every day, there are newspaper stories that are published specifically for their potential to provoke public reaction.

In this case, I’ll be trying to provoke readers to provoke Gov. Gregoire into speaking publicly about the Holmes the case — or, at least, authorizing her senior legal counsel to do so. I suspect the reason she turned down Holmes was political, and I think political pressure (of a populist sort) could, just maybe, provoke her to change her mind. Or at least talk about why she won’t. Realistically, I believe the chances of getting her to talk about it are slim. But at least I’ll know I’ll have done everything I could possibly do to get her to do so. And that’s just good journalism.

(By the way, there is precedent for Gov. Gregoire turning down a clemency request from a convicted murderer — again, over the recommendation of her board — and later changing her mind. I’ll be getting into that in my story; trust me, it makes for a very intriguing sidebar.)

Not sure who will publish it, but I’ll approach the Everett paper first, and if they turn me down, there’s a decent-sized list of credible Seattle media outlets to approach. Someone will publish it, given a) how good a story it is on its own merits; b) my own credibility as a Pacific Northwest journalist; and c) the fact that I can back up the facts I cite with the interviews I’ve recorded and the documents I’ve gathered.

The worst-case scenario? I publish it on my blog and get as many blogs and news sites in the greater Seattle area to link to it as possible.

So, this is something I’ll be working on, on top of everything else I’ll be working on, for the next couple of weeks.

Good thing I have no life, isn’t it?

Read Full Post »


I’m in Olympia, Washington, at the state Capitol, John Cherberg Building,Hearing Room No. 3 for today’s hearings of the state Clemency and Pardons Board.

This is where people looking to get old felonies off their records and people looking to get out of prison before their sentences are up come when they have no more recourse through the courts — to be recommended for clemencies or pardons to the governor by her handpicked panel of law-and-justice experts.

It’s where I get the stories that will be in my true-crime book.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, I found that I not only got a good seat, but had strong wireless Internet access and a ready outlet for my laptop. So, on the spur of the moment, knowing how dramatic these hearings can get, I decided to live-blog — with pictures! — the day’s proceedings.

Please join me … and check in throughout the day. There are nine cases on today’s agenda … at least three of which have been put forth by convicted murderers. It’s packed house here so far, standing room only, with family members and supporters of the petitioners eager to state their cases.

The hearing should start just after 10 a.m. Pacific time.



10:03 a.m.

Just two of the five board members present! One is participating by conference call, so two are absent. Yikes.

Present are board chairwoman Margaret Smith, a Seattle defense attorney who works in the federal court system; and Snohomish Police Chief John Turner. On the phone is criminal defense attorney Amanda Lee.

Honestly, if I were a petitioner before the board today, potentially with my future hanging in the balance, I’d feel a little bit cheated.



10:08 a.m.

Seferina Medrano is the first case. It’s pretty routine. She’s asking to have her civil rights restored after a drug conviction in the federal court system. It was approved within about 30 seconds.


10:10 a.m.

Willeen Ballard is the next case. In 1992, she was convicted in Spokane County of running over a man she carjacked and robbed. The man died. And that’s an old crime; not the one for which she is currently imprisoned. They’re getting her on speakerphone from the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. No one’s speaking in opposition. She’s being represented by Sheryl Ann McCloud, a Seattle attorney who specializes in these cases. She’s a frequent presence at these hearings, and has a pretty high success rate.

She’s accompanied by a man named Don Wohlers, described as Ballard’s “biggest supporter.

Ballard is 42, and has had “an extremely hard and abusive childhood.” Like her mother, she lapsed into drugs and prostitution as a teenager; later she became a mother whose child — as well as she — were regularly abused by the men who drifted through her life. There were suicide attempts, and as a result, “organic brain damage” set in.

Her crimes, McCloud says, stemmed from her drug addiction. “When she’s been clean, there’s been no crimes,” McCloud says.

She was clean from 1999 to 2002.

Ballard is now on the line, and McCloud will continue talking for now.

Crime for which she’s currently incarcerated: Car theft with injuries against an 82-year-old woman. (I haven’t seen the paperwork yet, so I can’t say what the specifics are yet.) She’s doing 25 years for the carjacking; been in for 7 years now (went in November 2002).

She didn’t do well in prison at first, racking up infractions. But then her brother died in 2005, and “she snapped in a good way,” McCloud says. She changed, stopped accumulating infractions, is now in counseling, works, takes community college classes. She’s got support lined up — “a whole cul-de-sac neighborhood of people who will emotionally support her” and take her in, McCloud says.

Her official state Department of Corrections risk assessment says she’s “low-risk” when she’s off drugs.

July 7, 2019 is her earliest release date as things stand now.

The King County prosecutor opposes clemency. It’s a “three-strike” case, and the deputy prosecutor who worte the letter notes that Ballard accepted her sentence in a plea deal. But, McCloud argues, it’s debatable as to whether Dan Satterberg, the current prosecutor, would see her crime as not being a three-strikes crime.

But, Margaret Smith on the board interjects: “A deal is a deal, and this board has usually be hesitant to overturn deals.” But, she says, “I understand that 300 months was bargained for when lief in prison was the only alternative available to her.” And now Satterberg has questioned whether other three-strikes life-in-prison recipients
should have gotten those sentences. In fact, several of those cases have been successfully pleaded before the board by McCloud, with Satterberg’s concurrence.

Smith says this case is different, however, because of Ballard’s extensive criminal history and that she has done relatively little of her sentence. And in 2002, when the crime happened, King County had decided they had more discretion in three-strikes cases than they thought they did under the controversial 1994 three-strikes-and-you’re-out law.

John Turner says he’s “troubled” by the lack of time that’s elapsed. Seven years — and really, less than that — is too little time for him to be sold on a definitive change in Ballard for the better, he says.


Wohlers speaks: His first claim is that Ballard was “set up” with a hashish-laced cigarette in prison, and shouldn’t count in her infractions. Other prisoners are jealous of her, because of the attention he says, and are out to get her. This traditionally is a very poor argument before the board. They want to hear accountability and ownership of bad behavior, not a litany of victimhood.

Wohlers has known her for “a most amazing” 21 months. “Look beyond the past and create a door for Willeen to pass through,” he says. “The anger, the hatred, the woe-is-me attitude, is gone.”

He’s pretty whiny, honestly. He’s way too emotional.

“Peace, love and happiness will be our motto,” says Wohlers.

Willeen will live at his Bellingham house, but have her own room, he says. “We will develop a relationship,” he says.

Her sister will offer Ballard a job at her restaurant, McCloud says.

Wohlers’ mother and brothers have met her and like her. In all, 18 people have come in support.

It’s Willeen’s turn to talk.

“All my life I’ve been hurt and hurt other people. I hurt someone else who didn’t deserve it because I was on drugs,” she says over the speakerphone. She emphasizes that she worked on herself before she knew about the Clemency and Pardons Board. “I’m not changing my life to impress anyone,” she says.

“I would hurt myself before I’d ever hurt another person ever again,” she says.

She claims she was sexually assaulted by corrections officers as well as by fellow inmates. She’s choking up now, dissolving into tears.

Younger sister Rhonda Ballard speaks: “Willeen chose the wrong way, became a hard person, a tough person. … She’s exhibited to me remarkable reform since she’s been in prison, she’s exhibited remorse.” Religion’s been a strong part of Willeen’s redemption, she says.

“I look forward to having Willeen working next to me and having her in my life.”

Turner wants to know more about the alleged drug setup.

“Yeah, I took a puff off of a cigarette, which was against the rules,” she says. “I felt that was done to keep me in prison, which is a very hard place.”

Turner: “I am troubled by the issue of time that has passed, and not passed.”

It’s motion time.

And Smith says she’s movi9ng to deny Willeen Ballard’s petition. Turner seconds it.

Says Smith: “Tou have many, many positive influences in your life, and I hope you will continue down that road.”

But, “I do not believe extraordinary circumstances exist that merit clemency. … I think the passage of time of only seven years is persuasive to me. … With the exception of a three-year period, you’ve used drugs and committed crimes, except when you’ve been incarceatred. I think you need a little more time.”

Says Turner: “The issue with the agreed-upon sentence weighs on me.”

He is impressed with the support structure, “and it is the basis for any success.”

He adds: “I’m just trouble by the amount of time and the severity of the crime.”

Amanda Lee weighs in. “There definitely are some extraordinary cirucmstances … the history of family drug and sexual abuse. So I wouldn’t say no extraordinary circumstances exist.”

But, “I share the same concerns as my fellow board members. … I’m hoping there’s a point in the not-too-distant future that the prosecutor’s office could agree that, yeah, this is too long a sentence.” But, she made clear, that time has not yet arrived.

“We need to see a little bit more time (for you) to demonstrate the sort of extraordinary rehabilitation that the governor could respond to.”

The vote is 3-0 to deny Willeen Ballard’s petition. Honestly, I saw that one coming.

Time for a short break.


11:12 a.m.

Next case: Aaron Borrero. He’s also being represented by Sheryl McCloud, and about three dozen supporters are here for him. Lot of high school friends, and several people who have job offers. Not sure yet what Borrero’s crime is; again, I haven’t gotten to preview the paperwork.


Actually, it looks like nearly 50 people are here for him. Wow. I hope with that much going for him, that his case is a little stronger than Willeen Ballard’s. Among those present are his son, Angel, who looks like he’s about eight years old, and Angel’s mother.

Biggest of all: His victim, “who was almost murdered,” is here to speak … for him. That’s huger than huge. I predict victory just on that basis.

Shall we find out just who Aaron is?

Says McCloud: 1998 was the crime. (WHAT crime???) And McCloud says, since 2000, he’s cleaned up his act — helped by transferring from the state penitentiary in Walla Walla to the state reformatory in Monroe. He’s had 50 to 60 clean drug tests since then.

In 2001, he paid off his legal and financial obligations. “Extraordinary,” McCloud said. Also extraordinary: A few years later, Borreo caught up _ and kept current with — his child-support obligations, thanks to a well-paying job in prison doing metal fabricating.

(I know, I know … but what was his crime????)

He’s done so much good volunteer and school work in prison, McCloud says, that the prison administrator made a rare exception for him a few years back — allowed him trailer visits with the mother of his child even though she had something on her record that normally would preclude that. Said the administrator: “It’s because of his commitment to building strong family relationships.”

He was transferred to McNeil Island last year.

He’s 35 now, “a leader, a mentor and a role model,” McCloud says.

He’s got five job offers and several places to live, should he be freed.

(The crime??????)

The request: Commute an almost-23-year sentence, for which he has served almost 11 years.

Les LeMieux, the victim of attempted murder and kidnapping: “I am not objecting to Aaron Borrero’s request to clemency. … I don’t know Aaron, I don’t know him personally, but I believe he’s changed.”

LeMieux himself has spent two years in federal prison, and speaks from that experience. The crime, he said, was “a business decision.”

“The man could not have gotten close to me unless he was very good at what he was doing.” LeMieux speaks, he says, as a “pre-eminent” high-level set-the-market marijuana dealer in the Seattle area in the late 1990s.

“What he did was a business decision, and there’s no way he could spend all this time in prison and not come to the conclusion that this a business he should still be in.”

LeMieux was tied up with copper wire and thrown into a freezing river. “I believe they didn’t know the chemical composition of copper very well, because I was able to break the bonds very easily,” he says.

In sum, “I think he can be an asset to the community and his children.”

Says Smith: “The fact that you’re alive is very fortunate and has nothing to do with what he did.”

LeMieux agrees, but says Borrero’s done enough time. “If he were to be put into a legitimate business, I have no doubt he would do very well.”

Boy, do I need to talk to this guy. He’s fascinating, very articulate, even joking a little.

Turner says it’s huge that the victim is speaking on behalf of the defendant.


That’s LeMieux, above, with Sheryl McCloud.

“I wouldn’t support any kind of clemency for anybody who hadn’t shown any kind of remorse,” he said. That was helped by the fact that he had gotten Borrero to write a letter to McCloud explaining his crime — presumably to see if he had minimized his conduct.

“It’s a terrible crime, but it was business and not personal,” he says.

Amanda Lee asks: “Does it makes sense to you that Mr. Borrero could have changed in the time he’s spent inside?”

LeMieux: “I think so … the fact that he has so much to go back to on the outside has a lot to do with it.”

In prison, “there is nothing you can do but take care of yourself. The only thing you have is your own body.”

In his mind, “he must be better,” LeMieux says.

“Some people think of prisons as gladiator academies and graduate programs for criminals, but I don’t think that has to be the case.”

He’s done, and now he’s gone. Wow, he’s fascinating. I’ve got to sit down with this dude.

Now it’s Aaron Borrero’s turn. “I’m not going to put sugar on poo and try to make it taste better,” he begins.

For a few minutes, he speaks with humility about his regrets.

Then it’s time for a few people to speak on his behalf. First up is Bill Klatt, who administered the metal fabricating program Aaron worked under in prison. Next is a very emotional man named Randy Dyer. He’s weeping at the table. I

n 1972, he says, he was involved in a kidnapping and spent three years in a federal prison, he says. Since 1979, he’s volunteered in prison, had three kids, brought religious teaching to inmates.

Aaron, he says, has changed because he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

Next up is Carol Estes, who teaches in the prisons. She’s written behalf on three other inmates who received clemency in the last year — Gerald Hankerson, Kareem Al-Shadeed and Steven Dozier. She’s volunteered for nine years, worked with a few hundred prisoners, and this is her fourth letter. She and Borrero have been involved in the University Behind Bars program.

“He’s not one of the best, he is the best,” Estes says. “One of the most committed and disciplined students I’ve ever known.”

“He not only recruited men to the program, he got them truly excited about the possibilities of being a small business owner,” she added. “And he did it across racial lines.”

“If you recommend clemency for Aaron, you’ll be releasing a young man who has a lot to offer the world.”

Last up is cousin Jason Lazaro. They were the same age, were close growing up.

“It was very clear he was going down that destructive road,” he says. “He got whatever he wanted because he was the star athlete. … For Aaron, it started to steamroll and it just got out of control. Prison probably saved his life.”

Jason noticed the positive changes in his cousin starting in 2001. “He’s ready to be there for his community, for his family, for his child,” he says.

“He’s admitted remorse to me, back in 2001,” Jason continues. “We will not let him fall down.”

McCloud wraps things up, and equates Les LeMieux’s struggles to forgive Borrero to the struggles the board must face. “I would urge you to follow Les’ lead,” she says.

The letter from the King County prosecutor opposes the clemency, Smith says. But Turner says the latter falls short of an opposition, merely that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t support the clemency.

Turner moves for commutation, and the room bursts into applause.

“I find it extraordinary that Mr. LeMieux not only takes the stand he does, but that he was here to tell us why,” Turner says. He also cites the huge support in the room, plus the offers of homes and jobs. Together, he finds them persuasive.

Amanda Lee weighs in. Or does she? She’s no longer on the phone! The board needs a break because they need three votes for a quorum. Ah, technical difficulties. How much did Lee miss?


12:16 p.m.

We are back. Lee is back, and she missed nothing. Only Turner’s now taken a potty break!

And now he’s back.

Turner corrects himself: The prosecutor’s office, he now agrees, does oppose the clemency. But that won’t change his position, he says.

Lee says she’ll second the motion to recommend the governor grant clemency to Steven Borrero. More happy gasps and applause.

She, too, is swayed by LeMieux’s testimony, which she cites as “unique” in her experience. “I find it extraordinary that he stood his ground in the face of opposition from his family,” she says.

“I think the time that has passed since this crime has been used exceedingly well … and he deserves an opportunity to rejoin his family.”

Chairwoman Smith agrees. “I don’t think there’s any issue of future dangerousness,” she adds.

It’s official: 3-0, for clemency. More applause, lots of hugs.

Next up: The case of Bob Kaseweter.


Here’s the Borrero-Lemieux story, according to a Caselaw link found by loyal reader Jeremy Lape:

In March 1997, Leslie Lemieux delivered a duffel bag filled with 30
pounds of marijuana to Kyle Anderson’s house. When Lemieux walked into
Anderson’s house, Borrero and Michael Vaughn put guns to his chest and
head. After forcing Lemieux to the ground, Borrero tied his hands and
feet, bound his hands and feet together, and blindfolded him. Borrero and
Vaughn then stuffed Lemieux in a duffel bag and carried him out to his
Anderson, Borrero, and Vaughn drove off in three separate vehicles. Vaughn
drove Lemieux’s car with Lemieux stuffed in the back. After several hours
of driving, Borrero and Vaughn stopped near the Yakima River. They took
Lemieux out of his car and dumped him into the river. After watching him
float away, Vaughn and Borrero left. Lemieux eventually managed to get out
of the river and find safety. The police arrested Borrero in California
two months later.
The State initially charged Borrero, Anderson, and Vaughn with
kidnapping in the first degree and assault in the first degree. Vaughn
negotiated a plea agreement with the State. Under the terms of that
agreement, he pleaded guilty to one count of first degree kidnapping in
exchange for testifying truthfully against Borrero and Anderson. By
amended information filed more than four months before trial, the State
increased the first degree assault charge against Borrero and Anderson to
first degree attempted murder.
Borrero and Anderson were tried separately. The jury convicted
Borrero of first degree kidnapping and first degree attempted murder.


12:26 p.m.

Kaseweter is up.

Jacquie McMurtrie, from the Innocence Project Northwest, is the counsel. This should be interesting. They’ve been working on his case for seven years.

Kaseweter has been in prison since 1992 for kidnapping. He has a wife and a 14-year-old daughter. Like him, they’ll be testifying by speakerphone. (“Testimony” is actually a misnomer, as the board hearings are not judicial proceedings.)

His earliest possible release date: October 2010.

Two key witnesses are the trial have recanted their testimonies. The court decided one of the men — they’re bothers — wasn’t credible.

I can see this is going to be a complicated narrative … multiple conspirators, several people rolling over on other people for various reasons, and apparently Kaseweter was the domino at the bottom of the pile. All but Kaseweter are out of prison. I really need to get hold of the case file and sort this all out.

OK, what about the victims? “It was horrible, terrifying,” McMurtrie admits. Smith says the victims are convinced that he was the ringleader.

Apparently Kaseweter was engaged, but was suspicious that his fiance was cheating on him. He enlisted friends to help him find out for sure. He confirmed that there was cheating … and that led to a breakup, and Kaseweter’s subsequent crash into depression. Then, the kidnapping. (OK, where did this happen????)

“Everybody who knows him knows that he would not engage in or condone an act of violence,” McMurtrie says, “and the fact that apparently incited someone to do these things for him was completely out of character.”

Chairwoman Smith is skeptical, and cites evidence and testimony from the investigation.

McMurtrie says the co-conspirators basically goaded Kaseweter into retaliating against the fiance because they felt he was too passive and mopey after the breakup.

“But I think we want to focus on Bob Kaseweter, who he is now,” she says.

She’s asking for a commutation and a pardon … and the Innocence Project believes he’s innocent. (I’m mystified, too … please bear with me.)

He taught himself Hebrew in prison so he could read the original Old Testament, McMurtrie says.

OK, found a story online about the Kaseweter case. Not sure it clears up much, though.

About 20 people are here on his behalf.

Speaking now is Rev. Thomas Dunbar. He’s known Kaseweter in 1991, in McAllen, Texas. “His one desire, as it was shown to us, was that he was grow in knowledge of Jesus and put into practice what he’s learned,” Dunbar says.

“My wife and I believe … that he was falsely accused,” he adds. “We were totally surprised when we heard the guilty verdict.”

He has been able to resist the temptations of prison life, Dunbar says. In prison, though, he’s been attacked, robbed and falsely accused, but “carries his spirit of forgiveness,” Dunbar says. He’s now imprisoned at McNeil Island.

I have to say, this is an unusual presentation. His supporters seem to be spending a lot of time making the case that he’s a good person who’s become a better person during his years in prison … but why would they even feel the need to make that case if they believe there was nothing for him to make up for? (Yes, I’m aware that’s a terrible sentence.) It seems to me that the Clemency and Pardons Board is maybe not the right venue for this case. But then again, it is the court of last resort, and perhaps his supporters have exhausted their avenues of appeal within the court system.

It’s Mrs. Rosemarie Kaseweter’s turn. She’s here from South Bend, Indiana. She’s made 34 trips in 16 years on this case. They — she and their daughter — spend a month in the summer and the holidays in Washington visiting him in prison.

And now, we learn that a request for a new trial was in fact denied, in 1995. Together, “we turned Bob in, in Vancouver, Washington.”

(I’m sorry; I know this doesn’t make much sense.)

She continues: He’s the most loving, gentle, Christian man. He helps other inmates write letters.

One of his infractions: Having too many postage stamps. Another: Leaving his laundry in the prison laundry room over the weekend.

He got 17 years in prison, for five different felonies. But because he wasn’t seen as a threat, he was freed on bond during the appeal process, around 1993. (Sorry, backing and filling in with facts as we go.)

“All Bob wants to do is help. … He’s still the gentlest person I’ve ever known in my life.”

Now, the 14-year-old-daughter is speaking.

“He’s the best father that anybody could be over 2,200 miles away and incarcerated my whole life,” she began. “For the past seven years, he has had teacher conferences with my teachers to see how I am doing academically. … He would narrate books on tapes when I was little, like The Magician’s Nephew and The Old Man and The Sea.”

When she was five years old, they wrote a story together by mail, going back and forth.

She’s choking up now.

“He said, ‘My duty as a parent to you is to make you happy,'” she says. “He still disciplines me from 2,200 miles away … no makeup, no piercings, no tattoos.”

“When he gets out, we’ll have a lot more fun than we could have playing Wheel Of Fortune in a visiting room.”

Now, it’s time for the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s office to retort, in opposition. Bob Shannon is the speaker.

“There are victims in this case, and they do oppose clemency,” Shannon begins. “Even though so many years have passed, they wish him to serve his determined sentence.”

What about the recanted testimony? Smith asks. Shannon believes that the original testimony of the witness was credible and fit with the facts of the investigation.

Now McMurtrie’s back, to wrap up.

But Amanda Lee breaks in with questions about the crime, and the co-conspirators. Apparently there was longstanding animosity between the victim and the (allegedly) contracted kidnapper — they’d worked together at a Schuck’s Auto Parts store and didn’t get along, McMurtrie says.

“The idea that (Kaseweter) would have her beat up to get her to come back to him doesn’t make any sense,” McMurtrie says, clearly implying that the “hitman” acted on his own — out of his own animosity toward the victim.

McMurtrie’s co-counsel — a woman named Canary — says that even if Clark County’s understanding of the facts is correct, that understanding doesn’t really understanding who Bob Kaseweter is now.

Canary says that at one point, Kaseweter was beaten so badly in prison that his skull was fractured and that he was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His friends in prison wanted to retaliate against the assailant as soon as he got out of “the hole,” they told him via letters, according to Canary. But Kaseweter convinced them to let it go.

As for support? “This room would be full if it was South Bend, Indiana,” Canary says.

“Or in prison,” Smith adds wryly.

More praise for his kindness, his gentleness, his thoughtfulness and his intelligence ….

“He truly is exceptional,” Canary finishes.

No words from Kaseweter, who is listening in. Apparently he made a video for the board earlier. I need to see that!

Now it’s time for the board to deliberate.

Turner sounds skeptical to start with. He is impressed by Kaseweter’s support group, however.

But, “I have to look at the facts,” he says. “Whether he’s guilty or innocent is not an issue for the board.” He’s not impressed by the recanting. He’s swayed by seven pages of testimony from the victims. “Once a victim is a victim, they’re victims forever, and their concerns have to be considered.”

Turner says he’ll move to oppose the petition, and notes that Kaseweter’s earliest possible release date is just 11 months away.

Now it’s Lee’s turn to speak.

(Some clarification: He’s eligible to be transferred to a work-release camp in March or April 2010, and be freed altogether by October 2010.)

Lee’s thoughts: She agrees that it’s not appropriate for the board to “revisit the facts.” She feels Kaseweter was well-presented.

“I am torn, frankly, by all the information,” she concedes, but ultimately she won’t take up the matter of guilt or innocence.

The early release date works against him, Lee says. She’s concerned that a positive recommendation would be more of a “referendum on the trial than on rehabilitation.”

Now Smith speaks. She can’t support a pardon, and she doesn’t believe that an innocent man has been wrongly imprisoned. Commutation? She agrees with Lee, and won’t support that as well.

She’s impressed by Kaseweter’s “remarkable attitude,” however.

“Unfortunately, I cannot support what you’re asking me to support,” she says. “And it disappoints me to disappoint you.”

The vote is in: 3-0 to deny a pardon, and to deny a commuted sentence.

Break time. Lunch break this time. Whew. I need to pee.


2:09 p.m.

We are back.

Next up: Patricia Teafatiller. Her attorney is John Cain. She’s on the phone from the women’s prison.

This case came up a year before: In her early 20s, about 15 years ago in Vancouver, Wash. Teafatiller was a young wife and mother despondent over her husband’s relationship with another woman. She decided to get his attention by making slash marks on the throats of herself and her two young daughters. She claimed it was a gesture, and the wounds were not extremely deep, but she was charged and convicted of two counts of attempted murder. She’s a little over 14 years into a 40-year prison sentence.

She came up for clemency a year before, and was denied. Not sure why she’s back now; usually the board wants a minimum of two years between hearings for people they’ve turned down. Apparently, Cain is saying, there are witnesses here to speak today who weren’t available during the 2008 hearing.

Nobody is here to speak against Teafatiller; the Clark County prosecutor’s office has sent in a letter in opposition, however.

A mental-health professional is speaking now about Teafatiller’s own childhood abuse. She says that the childhood abuse, coupled with a physically and emotionally abusive marriage in which drugs were also involved, created post-tramautic stress disorder that may account for the throat-slashings of her daughters.

The prosecutor at the time called it “the ultimate act of selfishness. … If she couldn’t have him, then he couldn’t have them,” according to Chairwoman Smith.

Smith wants to better understand the link between PTSD and Teafatiller’s criminal actions, and the professor so far isn’t addressing it. “She came within a quarter-inch of slitting the jugular vein on one of those girls,” Smith quotes.

The professor sees Teafatiller’s PTSD as a mitigating factor. “She was so stressed out she literally couldn’t think,” she says. “She had no coping mechanisms … she literally went with the flow.”

The immediate trigger? She and her husband had an argument earlier that day in which the husband’s girlfriend was revealed, the professor says. Compound that with alcohol and substance abuse issues, she added.

“She really is a poster woman for rehabilatation in the Department of Corrections. … Other inmates seek her out. It’s really a wonderful story with a happy ending.”

Turner has some questions. He wants to know what the chances are of her acting out the same way she did then if the same kind of stress triggers come up today. The professor says: “I don’t consider her a risk at all.”

The professor says, oh, by the way, that she’s never actually met Teafatiller. She’s only reviewed her records.

One more thing: She’s repaired her co-parenting relationship with her ex-husband, and has an ongoing relationship with her daughters. The girlfriend at the time is now the stepmother to the girls, “and she’s very grateful to her for being their stepmother.”

She’s nicknamed “Tea.”


Sharon Lodenbaugh, a friend who’s a former inmate speaks up for her now. “She’s able to develop coping skills, and I know for myself how important that is.”

Other inmates do seek her out: ‘Go ask ‘Tea.’ She’ll know what to do.”

Mary Plante, an ex-journalist, speaks about the trial. She says the reporter covering the case thinks Teafatiller got a raw deal because battered woman’s syndrome was never raised at the trial. “I thought it was potentially material in the level of charge as well as the sentencing.”

She considers Teafatiller a friend; they’ve known each other about 3 1/2 years.. They’re involved in a prison program called New Connections.

Joan Lobdell, who has owned prison-industry businesses, has known nearly 500 inmates over some 25 years. This is just the second time she’s chosen to speak for an inmate. “She should be out. I’ve spent eight hours a day, five days a week, over five years with her. … She was one of the best employees that I’ve ever had.”

Now it’s time for “Tea” to talk.

She’s interested in doing hazardous-cleanup work. “I have several resources,” she says. “I just need to get out.”

Her ex-husband has stayed neutral in regard to the clemency petition, she says. She used to regularly correspond with her daughters but hasn’t heard from them in 1 1/2 to 2 years.

Amanda Lee has a question about contact with the kids once she’s released. They’re 15 and 16 now, but a restraining order is in place until they turn 18 — as a result of the original judgment.

Has she accepted responsibility for her crime? “She has talked about it in therapy, dealt with it very effectively and put the major traumas behind her,” the professor says.

Cain, the attorney, wraps up. He didn’t want to like her, based on her crime. But he’s changed his mind. “The crime itself was a shocking crime … but when she came out of it, she did call her sister, she did take her children to the hospital,” he says. “I think a sentence of the time she’s already done would have been the appropriate sentence.”

It’s the board turn.

Lee speaks first. She’s impressed with the strides that Teafatiller has made, and while she’s reluctant to criticize a trial in which a diminished-capacity defense was raised, she feels “the punishment was excessive.”

She’s leaning toward clemency.

Smith now talks. “I’ve been convinced that we’ve gotten the information that supports a recommendation of clemency to the governor,” she says. She’s impressed with the professor’s expertise and testimony, citing her as a noted regional authority on PTSD and battered women’s syndrome. She doesn’t play that card lightly, Smith notes. “I am very persuaded by her testimony today. … It puts into context Ms. Teafatiller’s conduct then, and the unlikelihood that she would be a danger in the future.”

She makes a motion for clemency, on two conditions: 1) She be supervised by the state Department of Corrections to ensure that she gets mental-health counseling; and 2) She waits 18 months for a smooth, slow transition back to society.

Smith is also impressed by the testimony of those who have supervised her work in prison. “The transformation of Ms. Teafatiller is impressive,” Smith says.

Lee seconds the motion.

Turner says he’ll vote no. He agrees that the 40-year sentence was excessive, but “this was a horrendous, incomprehensible act,” he says. He’s also concerned that the family hasn’t stepped up for Teafatiller.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry,” he said.

The final vote: 2-1 for commutation.


3:13 p.m.

Next case: Willard Jimerson Jr. He’s the Seattle kid who, barely 13 years old, fatally shot a girl in the back as she tried to flee a melee. That was in 1993. He’s now 29 years old and imprisoned at McNeil Island.

Terry Rogers Kemp is his attorney.

“Despite he’s going in at age 13, he’s grown in spite of his difficulties, has had many great achievements, has exhibited great remorse, and had great success in prison,” Kemp says.

Earliest possible release date: 2014.

In March 1994, Jimerson and other kids were out in a park just before midnight, messing around. They’d been drinking 40-ounce bottles of Old English and smoking marijuana. They came upon Jamie Lynn Wilson, who was minding her own business, but a young girl with Jimerson’s group decided to revive a school dispute she had with Wilson. She was confronted, alone, by the group. She broke away and ran from the fight. After a long run, she tired and the others caught up to her and beat her up. Jimerson was holding the coats of the fighters. Then, he found a gun in one of the coats — and shot at Wilson, killing her. He was charged with aggravated first-degree murder.

“The death of Jamie Lynn was very difficult for Willard to come to grips with it. he maintained denial through the trial and afterwards,” Kemp says. In fact, he stepped up and admitted what he did only after seven years in prison, she adds.

He was largely raised by his grandparents. His parents, who are here, admit they played a major part in who he is today — after all, they didn’t make sure he was home and in bed that night.

Willard was called “penitentiary bait.” That’s in part because his family name is notoriously prominent with Seattle police, Kemp says. Hid dad, in particular, was a rock star of a criminal to kids Willard’s age. Both parents were drug addicts and alcoholics who had no interest in raising a child, she says.

He received a number of infractions during his first years of incarceration, at Maple Lane School near Chehalis.

But now? He’s finished high school, with a 3.6 GPA. He has a community college diploma and several certificates in the general trades. He’s also become a leader, taking charge of Juneteenth observances in prison.

Now Pastor Kenneth Branfer(?) of the Mount Baker Zion Baptist Church in Seattle is talking. A child of gang-infested streets himself, he’s known and worked with the Jimersons for 14 years.

I sure wish he’d get to the point. He’s spent about 15 minutes talking about his background and his philosophies.

“The truth of the matter is that he was a child tried as an adult, but it doesn’t make him an adult with the mind of an adult,” the pastor says. “But now he is an adult … very rarely does he blame his parents. He owned up and took responsibility. He always talked about his responsibility in this heinous crime.”

“I owe it to Jamie” to live a good life, Willard says, according to the pastor.

He himself has lost a brother to murder, and he says forgiveness is paramount.

“We need young men like Willard Jimerson who have changed their lives and beaten the odds and have a word for pyoung eople in trouble,” he says. “He is a highly intelligent young man. I believe he has the werewithal to turn a lot of lives around.”

(I’m really surprised that they’re letting the pastor drone on. It’s 4 p.m. and there are still three more cases ahead of this one. And this one’s nowhere near wrapping up. When will we end today?)

His first cousin aka “older sister” Emijah Smith speaks. “I was blessed not to have similar parents,” she says.

“He has always talked to me and shown remorse to me,” she adds. “Willie wants to show our family and our community that he’s a benefit and not a danger.”

Where will he live? My door is open, she says. An uncle with a body shop will offer a job.


Now it’s Willar Jimerson Sr.’s place to speak.

“I was a bad father,” he says, acknowledging his drug-and-alcohol past, “and if I’d been there for him, this whole tragedy might not happened. I should have been there to give him the guidance and love that every child deserves from his parents.

“I should have been there. I should have been there.”

He wants to make up for lost time. He’ll help with money, jobs, emotional support.

“I want to do everything now that I couldn’t do then for my son,” he says.

Now it’s Willard’s time to talk, by speakerphone from McNeil Island.

“I accept full responsibility for my actions, and it’s because of my actions that I feel ashamed.”

Then he broke down in a fit of sobbing, and many in the audience sobbed along with him.

“I’m sorry for what I did to the Wilson family, and I’m sorry for what I did to my community,” he said once he regained his composure.

“Jamie Lynn did not deserve to die.”

Kemp gently prods him to talk about the future. He wants to go the University of Washington to study psychology and sociology, to help him work with at-risk youth. Eventually he wants to operate his own nonprofit enterprise that works with the whole juvenile-services community.

“From this experience, I’ve gained the knowledge to help other young people fill in the gaps in their lives,” he says. “I know I’ve got a lot to do to build up my credibility in that regard.”

But for now? “I’ll work at McDonalds, and ain’t nobody ever going to outwork me,” he says. “I’ll spend so many hours there that they’ll call me Mister McDonalds.”

Now, it’s deliberation time. Tough one. I can’t predict it.

Turner moves for commutation — in 18 months, so he can get the same ease-into-society training that they want Patricia Teafatiller to have.

Smith agrees, citing his young age and lack and parenting, and his “unfortunate experience” going into the adult corrections system and somehow finding the strength to survive and thrive. She’s also impressed my the pastor’s offer of personal leadership, and the Seattle Central Area-community.

“I think Pastor Ransfer’s question of ‘How long is enough’ is a relevant question, and I find that he’s bee in there long enough,” she says.

Turner has more to say. “I do believe in my heart of hearts that Mr. Jimerson will not go out and commit another crime,” he says. He adds that his vote is somewhat motivated by guilt about voting against another young offender — 14-year-old Barry Massey, in 2007. (I need to look up that case; I missed that hearing.)

Lee isn’t quite as easy a sell. But she’s leaning toward the majority. “I have no doubt that Mr. Jimerson does not pose a threat in the future,” she says. But she says she still wants still to be persuaded.

In the end, it’s 2-1, with Smith and Turner for commutation, and Lee against.

It’s now up to the governor. And believe me, it’s no slam-dunk.


4:36 p.m.


Next up: Steven Anderson. Kenneth Rossbeck, a Tacoma attorney, is representing him.

Eleven years ago, he came home on emergency leave from an Army deployment, back to Fort Lewis. His first wife had been assaulted by a man they know. He was told not to contact the man, a good friend, but he did anyway — talked to him through the door. That didn’t go well, so Anderson broke down the door and assaulted the former pal. Police reports mention a knife, but it never turned up.

Anderson insisted on owning up to what he did, Rossbeck says. They pleaded first-degree burglary down to second-degree, but “it’s still a very serious felony.”

The victim, by the way, did not have to be hospitalized.

Anderson had trouble completing probation requirements because of his Army deployments. In Iraq, he won a Bronze Star and several other medals. He saw close combat, including a close friend die. “He acted with extreme bravery,” Rossbeck said.

The military could have let him go, but Anderson convinced the brass he could be an asset. He served two enlistments. (He’s still wearing a uniform … at least at today’s hearing, but it’s implied that he’s no longer in the service. Huh?)

“The victim has been contacted … and is not opposed to my Anderson receiving clemency,” Rossbeck says. “They even parted on somewhat good terms.”

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney is not opposed to the clemency bid.

He’d like a pardon, plus the restoration of civil and gun rights.

Anderson speaks. “I would just like to be a productive civilian,” he says, “I want to be able to vote, want to teach my son to hunt in five or six years, be able to fill out job applications and not have to mark ‘convicted felon.'”

He says his felony has cost him jobs.

“I am sorry for my actions 11 years ago,” he says. “I have been in situations where there’s been a lot more going on and I’ve been able to keep a cool head.”

His wife speaks.

“He’s been a very good father and a good husband,” she says. “He’s a good person.”

Nobody’s here to speak against him.

Amanda Lee makes a motion for a pardon. She’s persuaded that his ervice in Iraq is “extraordinary.” Plus, the offense was committed out of something “quite understandable … an assault upon his wife.”

Smith seconds the motion. It’s an unanimous decision.

His wife softly weeps, and kisses him.



Jamie Crawford is next. She’s seeking a pardon for several offenses related to the same act, she says. Contempt of court, forgery, rendering criminal assistance, bail jumping, “all related to meth,” as Turner points out. The crimes occurred in 2003 and 2004.

She has federal charges, but the state charges have to dealt with first. Next stop: A presidential pardon.

The forgery is the only felony.

She wants to become a nurse.

She grew up in an upper-middle-class family, a good student and a standout athlete. And she started on meth at age 15. “I was hooked instantly, and my life was a complete disaster. I was doing it to lose wight, and the next thing I knew, I lost five years of my life.”

What could have changed her then? Be stricter, she says. “Make me accountable.”

She was 18 when the forgery happened. She was in jail for rendering criminal assistance just before that. “Months later, I was in jail on federal charges.”

“That’s when I decided, I’m not going to let this lifestyle take me.”

Her rebuilding began in March 2005, doing street outreach in Yakima. “That was one way of giving back to my community.” She’s also repaid “every penny, over $10,000” of her restitution and fees.

In January 2006, she was asked to speak at high schools around the state about the dangers of meth. “Just being able to speak out and help them, just made my day,” she says.

“I have changed my life around,” she says. “I have two beautiful kids.”

She’s been in a nursing program but she can’t take the clinicals portion until she clears away her felony. She too has struggled to find jobs, and knows for a fact that she’s been bounced because of her felony. “If you had forgery on your record, would I want to hire somebody like you?”

Deliberation time ….

Not yet. Her mother wants to speak. “She was an angel from birth to fifteen. … Then we hit fifteeen. She was supposed to be at Young Life; instead she was at a party. It was five years of tremendous heartache.”

She changed “on a snap” because of divine intervention.

She works at mother’s CPA office, and “I have complete confidence in how she handles my records.” She’s a “wonderful mother.” The transformation, she says, “is absolutely incredible.”

She has a letter of support from state Attorney General Rob McKenna, among others.

Turner is persuaded, in equal parts because all of her offenses came from one crime, and because of her “extraordinary” efforts to repair her life.

Smith won’t argue. “I’m just so impressed by the Generating Hope for the homeless program you’ve started, all the hard work you’ve done with those people.”

The vote: 3-0 for a pardon.

I’m done, and I’m pooped.

Pizza time.

Thanks for hanging with me today.

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My way is to just be there and see what happens. A lot of the big breaks I got happened just because of that. But you have to have a good intuitive sense about dealing with people. You have to figure out where they’re coming from and be empathetic. … A lot of times you only have thirty seconds to get across and connect with them, but you have to be there for those situations to occur. You cannot go in with a list of questions. You have to let things evolve. That’s what kills journalists who try these books. You have to have a relationship and go back four, five, six times before someone will talk to you; it can’t be fifteen questions and out the door. You have to let them go where they want in a conversation.

— True-crime author Harry MacLean, in Writing Bestselling True Crime and Suspense, by Tom Byrnes

Boy, did I ever screw that one up.

One of the hardest jobs a true-crime writer has, I imagine, is trying to convince people to talk.

You can probably guess all the reasons a potential source for a true-crime book has to dodge a writer in pursuit of an interview (and for a book-length project, I gather that it’s more like a mutually co-dependent relationship). Guilt, for one. Shame or embarrassment for having been associated with guilty people, for another. Desire to put horrific events behind them, certainly.

And, for a good many with whom I personally have dealt, an inability to see how they benefit from spilling their secrets.

(Ironically, the criminals themselves are often the easiest to get on board. At least in my experience. Mostly that’s because their fifteen minutes in the mainstream media came and went a long time ago, or never came at all. If they’re in prison, they’re generally bored out of their gourds and hungry for attention.)

Initial mistrust is the thread that connects all these passive motives, as I see it. Because, after 24 years in newspaper journalism, I firmly believe that everybody wants to talk. They’re just saving what they have to say for the right audience. An audience they can trust.

So it’s my job to be that right audience. Hopefully with a minimum of professional manipulation. (My favorite is: “Well, I have enough to write your story based on all the court and police documents I’ve been able to gather. It would just be a much better story if you gave your side of things.” That one works a lot. Mostly because it’s absolutely true. Does that mean it’s still manipulation?)

Just like with dating or job interviews, often you get only one chance to make a good impression.

Recently, I learned I was lucky enough to get a second chance … nearly five years after I’d blown the first one.

Here’s the story (with some details deliberately smudged because it’s my story, dammit … it’s my story!):

In 2003, while I was the editor of the newspaper in Gig Harbor, a town near Tacoma that’s next door to the Washington Corrections Center for Women, I went to the prison to report on a story about a Thanksgiving event for inmates and their families.

There, I struck up a lengthy conversation with a young woman — first, for the story and then about her personal history. This blonde, petite, waifish woman of 23, who looked for all the world like a teenager, had just entered her eighth year of imprisonment for first-degree murder.

I had to look up the story later, as she didn’t want to tell it to me in detail then and there. As a 15-year-old, she had run away from home to her boyfriend’s home. And she and her boyfriend planned to run away, out of town, together. But his mother found out about it, and tried to put a stop to it.

So they killed her.

Caught a few days later, both were tried as adults because the juvenile courts declined jurisdiction. The conviction was a slam-dunk; he got 28 years in prison and she got 23 years and 8 months.

And that was that. Except that her parents, with the help of an attorney, felt that the adult court in her county wrongly superseded the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in her case. But she was out of appeals, and so the only way she could air that argument was before the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board.

She did so, by conference call from the prison, in a 2004 hearing in Olympia that I attended. (And, I noted with some surprise, I was the only journalist in attendance. By default, the story was mine.)

About sixty of her supporters were present; nobody was there representing the victim’s family. (According to the board’s rules, it’s incumbent on the people petitioning for clemency to make a good-faith effort to find people on both sides. Cherry-picking the facts and the people who are notified can wind up backfiring on the petitioners in the governor’s office. if opponents to the petition surface after the hearing.)

Before a packed room, over three hours, the five-member board wrestled with the case. Some, as you might guess, couldn’t get past the fact of murder, and certainly not after just eight years. Others were moved by her spotless record in prison and were troubled by the fact that she had been skipped over by the juvenile justice system — in what smelled to some like a backroom deal with a politically sensitive prosecuting attorney.

In the end, the board members made a decision I haven’t witnessed since. They decided that letting her out after eight years was too soon. But, a majority reasoned, ten years would be all right. So they voted to recommend to the governor that she be let out in the fall of 2006.

I took pictures of the hugs shared by family and friends, and wrote two long articles for her hometown newspaper — one about the hearing, another rehashing the crime.

The shit hit the local fan.

Friends and family members of the victim stepped forward. They made noise, they wrote angry letters to the editor, they circulated petitions in opposition to the clemency, for the governor’s consideration. More than 1,000 people signed.

As the months passed with no word from the governor, my relationship with the family deteriorated. I had talked to them about the possibility of writing a book even then, and we even sat around their kitchen table one morning to lay the groundwork for the project. But they eventually froze me out, ignoring most of my phone calls and e-mails.

Nearly six months after the hearing, the mother sent me a withering note. My stories, she felt, had the effect of swinging a stick at a nest of sleeping hornets. Now they were buzzing everywhere, and buzzing angrily. She and her husband had been confronted numerous time around town. Now, she feared, the governor would recoil in the face of all this eleventh-hour outrage and overturn the recommendation from his handpicked board.

In short, they didn’t trust me, didn’t feel that I wasn’t on their team, didn’t want to work with me any more. And didn’t want to talk to me anymore.

I later wrote a letter to the young woman herself (by then, I’d left the Gig Harbor paper and had thus lost my ready access to the prison). Her reply was polite, but she made it clear that she was putting all matters in the hands of her parents, who had spearheaded her clemency bid, and was letting them speak for her. So that door shut in my face as well.

Now, I felt bad about this. But I also felt bad about feeling bad. After all, ethically, I did nothing wrong. It wasn’t my job to be on their “team.” My stories were accurate. And I can’t be forced to feel responsible for how other people receive them.

And yet , I still felt bad. Guilty. Of a certain, I don’t know … myopia, I guess. I wanted to write a book, yes, but I also wanted the satisfaction of the quick score. I was a full-time freelance writer in those days, and it was hard to see past the next story and the next buck. The long term for me was the next week. I needed to keep gas in my tank and food on my table, not worry about a career that was halfway in the crapper.

But imagine how many true-crime book writers would be able to maintain their access to their sources if they wrote articles in newspapers or magazines after each development or each interview. Not long, is my guess. These stories, as good as they may be, lack the full context and nuanced perspective of a book-length dissection of events. And sources, as unsophisticated as they are, know this intuitively, I imagine. And as they say, you can shear a sheep many times, but skin them only once.

So, reluctantly, I let it go. I let them go.

A few months later, in early 2005, I got the word from my contact in Gov. Gary Locke’s office: The governor had upheld his board’s recommendation. The young woman was granted clemency. She would be freed in the fall of 2006.

I wrote my last newspaper article on the subject. A few weeks later, I was hired for the full-time newspaper job I still hold today, and moved on. But the young woman’s story never really left me.

So, late last year, when I conceived of the idea of writing a book that collected some of the most dramatic stories of crime, punishment and redemption that came through the Clemency and Pardons Board, it was the young woman’s story that first came to mind. But I admit I was intimidated to try to find her, to approach her and her family. And I needed to look at her file again, and I had other stories I could dive into immediately. So I put in my request for the file, knowing it would probably take months to fulfill, and went to work on the other stories.

Nearly two weeks ago, the young woman’s file was finally ready for me to review. And when I did, I realized that her story was even better than I thought it would be. For the first time, I saw the ferocious extent to which the people opposed to her clemency stated their case. Dozens of letters. Dozens of petitions, all filled to the bottom of each page with signatures. I’d love to know how Gov. Locke — now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce — came to see past that justified outrage and decided to grant clemency. (I suspect that’s one interview I’m not going to get, however. But you know what? I’m going to try anyway.)

So, sitting there in the governor’s conference room — now belonging to the current governor, Christine Gregoire — I closed the case file and realized it was time to try to renew the connection with the young woman and her family. Nearly five years had gone by. Nearly three years since she had gotten out of prison, if everything had gone according to Hoyle. Which, I realized, I had no idea if they actually had.

All I had was the same e-mail address and mailing address I had in 2004. But it was better than nothing, so I gave it a shot. I figured the chances were better than 80 percent that I’d either get no response at all, or get my missives bounced back to me.

I’m glad I didn’t play those odds at Emerald Downs, however. Because the mother replied to me a few days ago.

The e-mail read, in part:

Your book idea sounds like a very good one. I think it is a subject that should be told. I am also sure that we could add some very valuable information about our journey through the prison system and the clemency process. There are very few cases that turn out the way hers did and we are very grateful for that. … I have told her about your project and she said that she would think about it. She really wants to leave the past in the past but if it can help her to move on, emotionally and/or financially, I would encourage her to do so.

Knowing how much influence the mother has historically had over her daughter, I took this a very good sign indeed. I responded the next day, and we’re arranging a meeting — mother, father, daughter and me — sometime in the next few weeks.

I’ll keep you posted. Or should I? Do I risk making the same mistake twice by blogging about it … even if I name no names?

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