Looking back at three-strikes

17 years ago, Washingtonians decided that repeated violent felonies would mean life in prison. Now that we have experience with the law, how does it look?

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Some of Clark County’s most notorious third-strikers

• Roy Russell received a third strike twice in Clark County. The first time was in 1999, when the vacuum-cleaner salesman was convicted of arson after setting fire to his girlfriend’s apartment. The strike was removed after the Court of Appeals decided that one of his previous strikes, for kidnapping, didn’t count because it was committed in Arizona, where the kidnapping law wasn’t comparable to Washington’s. He was convicted of a third strike again in 2006 for second-degree murder, prompting the state Legislature to close the loophole that had allowed his first appeal.

• John Douglas Letellier, then 47, was convicted in July 1999 of deliberately robbing a fast-food restaurant so he could be arrested on his “third strike” and be sent to prison for life. His attorney told the judge at sentencing that his client had spent most of his life in prison and was comfortable there.

• Billy Jo Hemenway, then 46, was convicted in February 2003 of raping a woman in the upper-level family restroom at Westfield Vancouver mall and received life in prison. Judge John Wulle told Hemenway at sentencing he was “the person the Legislature was thinking about “when they passed the law.

• Ronald Chenette, then 39, was convicted in December 2008 of shooting and killing a police dog. Chenette’s first two strikes are second-degree murder (he killed a drug dealer) and second-degree assault.

Three-strikers by the numbers

• As of June 2008, when the statistics were most recently compiled, there were 314 “persistent offenders” serving life sentences, including 16 prisoners from Clark County.

• The most common third strikes among these prisoners were for second-degree robbery or second-degree assault.

• The average age of a persistent offender is 39, and 98 percent of them are men.

Source: Sentencing Guidelines Commission

To Chelsea Harrison, a precocious, pretty 14-year-old, Roy Russell was “Uncle Roy,” a cool guy who let teenagers party at his house.

To prosecutors and judges, Russell was a habitual violent offender who shouldn’t have been free on a fall night five years ago.

The three-time convicted felon had been released from prison after a loophole in Washington’s law for persistent offenders said one of his “strikes,” or violent offenses, didn’t count.

As it turned out, Russell had a drinking party for teenagers at his home on the evening of Nov. 1, 2005. Sometime after midnight, Harrison was suffocated to death and left in a basement shower.

A Clark County jury convicted him of second-degree murder and this time, a judge ensured he really did receive a life sentence.

The case shed light on the inconsistencies of Washington’s three-strikes law, which covers more than 40 felonies labeled the “most dangerous offenses,” and led Harrison’s family to advocate for its reform.

Today, the debate over the law continues.

Harrison’s family and local prosecutors say Russell is exactly the kind of criminal voters had in mind when they passed Initiative 593: The worst of the worst. That distinction isn’t as clear for other offenders sentenced under the law, however.

Critics argue the law sweeps those guilty of lesser offenses, such as second-degree robbery and second-degree assault, in with the more egregious offenders, and forces taxpayers to pay for their incarceration.

It’s been 17 years since voters passed I-593, and the debate has become more pressing as the state’s budget is tight and lawmakers look for ways to pinch pennies. Persistent offenders cost taxpayers an average $34,000 annually to incarcerate. Some wonder whether they really need to be imprisoned for life.

“For some (offenders), it’s an easy call,” said Jeff Barrar, a Vancouver criminal defense attorney who represented Russell. For others, it’s not, and “it should be up to a judge to make that determination. One size doesn’t fit all.”

Proponents say the law deters crime and ensures that habitual offenders who weigh down the system are locked away for good. They say the law prevents tragedies, such as Harrison’s death.

“You can guarantee that that person won’t harm another person for the remainder of time,” said Jim Senescu, a former deputy prosecutor who handled the Roy Russell case. “Think about how many people would have been harmed by him” if not for the law.

But statistics from the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveal that the majority of third-strike offenders receive their final strikes for second-degree robbery and second-degree assault. In other words, some people are locked up in cases in which no one was seriously hurt, said state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle.

“It could be for putting his fist in his pocket and robbing an espresso stand,” Kline said. “I think that’s a little overboard.”

Possible bill

That conclusion led Kline to draft a bill for the upcoming legislative session that could release 42 of the 311 prisoners currently serving three-strikes life sentences. Those 42 no longer pose a danger to society because of their age and were convicted of the lesser of the violent offenses, he said.

To qualify for early release, Kline said, the prisoner could not have been convicted of a class A felony, would have to have served at least 15 years in prison and would have to have their case first reviewed by a parole board.

“We’re looking for a class of people who can return to society,” Kline said. “They deserve, as a class, less punishment than the other some 300.”

One of those inmates is Curtis Caton of Clark County. The then-39-year-old ironworker was convicted in May 2000 of robbing a woman outside the Cascade Park Fred Meyer. Despite arguing that he had been crime-free for 17 years before the robbery and, therefore, should not be sentenced to life, Caton was given just that.

At the time of his sentencing, Caton aggressively criticized the law for those reasons. Now, Kline is taking up the same argument.

“Justice is sometimes removing the people who don’t need to be there (in prison),” Kline said.

The state senator said he has long been an opponent of the law. During the past nine legislative sessions, Kline unsuccessfully lobbied to remove second-degree robbery from the lists of strikes. The bills never went anywhere because “we have not yet brought the public to understand that being tough on crime doesn’t deter crime,” he said.

Deterrent?

Not all share Kline’s view that the law is draconian. When I-593 passed in November 1993, public concern about crime was at its peak. So it came as no surprise that the initiative won with 76 percent of the vote. Washington was the first of 23 states to enact a three-strikes law, said Paul Guppy, vice president of research for Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based think tank.

Many believed the new law would deter violent crime. Nearly two decades later, Guppy believes the law has done just that.

Guppy, who has researched the subject since the law took effect, found that in 1995, violent crime declined by 4.8 percent, resulting in 1,272 fewer violent incidents overall.

“It has reduced crime,” Guppy said. “We’ve heard from police there’s a change in attitude when (people) know they’re facing a third strike.”

Barrar doesn’t see the law as the deterrent. In his 22 years as a defense attorney in Vancouver, Barrar hasn’t seen the three-strikes law factor into why a person chooses not to commit a crime.

“No one’s rational when they commit these crimes,” he said.

And lawmakers obviously weren’t thinking anybody would actually want to go to prison for life. But that’s what happened in 1999, when Vancouver man, John Douglas Letellier, robbed a Subway shop on Fourth Plain Boulevard with the sole purpose of receiving his third strike. His defense attorney told the judge that Letellier, then 47, had already spent most of his adult life in prison and wanted to go back. A judge granted Letellier’s wish.

Other Clark County third-strike convicts have also been locked up for less-than-glamorous reasons. The most current third-strike candidate, Dion Ward, convicted by a jury of second-degree assault for threatening his girlfriend with a knife, was granted a new trial by a judge because his defense attorney did such a poor job representing him.

He will have a hearing Nov. 19 to set a new trial date.

There were issues with his conviction, his appellate attorney argued, such as the fact that Ward’s pocket knife wasn’t opened at the time he was accused of threatening his girlfriend, who wasn’t hurt.

However, Ward fits the bill as a habitual offender: He has been in and out of Clark County’s courts since the 1990s, with strikes for second-degree assault with sexual motivation and indecent liberties. Since 2002, he has had several domestic violence and DUI convictions.

Attorney Senescu poses this question: Who’s worse — a murderer or a career criminal?

“(Ward’s) case is a perfect example of why I think the law works,” attorney Senescu said. “I would look at how he was committing crime after crime after crime. Obviously, the rehab and treatment haven’t worked.”

Guppy agrees. “The law targets two type of criminals: the worst of the worst and the repeat offender — the person who robs banks. These aren’t horrible murderers,” he said. “These are people that have shown a pattern of behavior over a period of time.”

Habitual and violent

By all accounts, Russell fit both distinctions: He was a habitual and violent offender. He had a 1979 conviction for robbery and a 1992 conviction for kidnapping, both in Arizona. In 1999, he received his third strike for setting fire to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, but was released from prison following a successful appeal.

In 2005, he was living in a quiet neighborhood on Daniels Street. Teens frequented his home for drinking parties. One of them was Chelsea Harrison.

To this day, her grandmother Sylvia Johnson doesn’t know exactly know what happened the night she died.

She first knew something was wrong when her 14-year-old granddaughter didn’t return home after school on Nov. 1, 2005. Chelsea always called her mom or grandma to let them know where she was.

Johnson frantically started calling all of Chelsea’s friends. At 7 p.m., her granddaughter called to say she was working on a science project with a friend and would be home by 9.

“I never saw or heard from her again,” Johnson said.

When Chelsea was found dead the next morning in Russell’s basement shower, all eyes turned to him.

But her family didn’t know the extent of Russell’s sordid past until days later.

When she found out about the three violent felonies, “I was appalled,” said Johnson, who now lives in Southern California. “My first emotion was rage, anger. A big question mark (I had was) how could something like this ever happen?”

Johnson and Chelsea’s mother, Stephanie Johnson, quickly began calling state legislators. Republican state Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver took up the family’s cause, introducing a bill to close a loophole in the law. But it was three years before the bill would gather steam.

“Obviously we were disappointed” when it failed the first two sessions, she said. But we didn’t give up.”

Their persistence paid off in March 2008, when the Chelsea Harrison Act was signed into law. It amended the persistent offender act to specify that any felony conviction in another state with a finding of sexual motivation counts as a “three strikes” crime if the minimum sentence imposed was 10 years or more.

Today, Johnson said, she her and daughter keep Chelsea’s memory alive with a box in their den, filled with horseshoes (mementos of Chelsea’s days riding horses), pictures of her and riding awards. As a further memorial, she says she plans to contact California legislators to make sure there aren’t similar problems with that state’s three strikes law.

There’s always room for change, she believes, even for a law that promises life incarceration.

“If you take someone’s life like that, I think you should be ready to give up yours,” she said. “But I think it’s something that really needs to be studied. It’s not perfect by any means. And I know it can still use some work.”

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.