Case, Staff & Intern News
In July 2020, Mr. W was charged in state court with Arson for setting a fire at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) East Precinct during the CHAZ protests. The fire was quickly extinguished on the sidewalk and it caused minimal damage (char marks) to the building. At the time, local press had reported that the building had been abandoned by SPD. In state court, his mandatory guideline range would have been 6-12 months of custody. After he posted bond and was released in state court, the feds stepped in and charged him with Arson in federal court where he faced a five-year mandatory minimum term and he was detained at the FDC Seatac which experienced a massive COVID outbreak which required long periods of lockdown conditions to control its spread. Like many Americans, Mr. W was protesting police brutality, but he also had more personal reasons that included his own prior experience with local police and, more importantly, the murder of his friend and housemate, Manuel Ellis, by Pierce County Sheriffs. After the Washington Attorney General’s Office announced it was filing criminal charges against the sheriff deputies who killed Mr. Ellis, Mr. W decided to take responsibility for his conduct. Ultimately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to a plea which avoided the five-year mandatory minimum and Mr. W was eventually sentenced to 24 months of custody. The defense submitted a complex social history report that detailed Mr. W’s resilience despite his difficult childhood in foster care where he was placed dozens of different homes. Mr. W also won an award for his academic/athletic achievements in high school and once ran for Seattle City Council. While the defense hoped for a time-served sentence, Mr. Willoughby came away from the process feeling like he was given a voice.
The defense team consisted of Seattle AFDs Dennis Carroll and Jesse Cantor, Social Worker Daniel Potter-Engelskirger, and Seattle paralegals Alma Coria and Janet Stanton.
In a factually fascinating case, Mr. M was charged with 2 felonies: intentionally pointing a laser at a Coast Guard helicopter and making false statements for telling the FBI that he was not aware of the helicopter. This happened in fall of 2016; the Government filed charges 2 ½ years later.
The defense team (consisting of recently retired Tacoma AFD Miriam Schwartz, Seattle AFD Mohammad Hamoudi, Tacoma Research & Writing attorney Alan Zarky, Tacoma investigator Mike Stortini, Seattle Paralegal Janet Stanton, and Tacoma Paralegal Julie Valencia) hired an aviation expert/ helicopter flight instructor) who, together with Zarky, used trigonometry to determine that our client could not possibly have observed the helicopter moving across the sky at the location (more than 4 nautical miles out) as reported by the Coast Guard.
A nighttime reenactment of the flight, using a small rented plane, confirmed Zarky’s and the expert’s calculations. Mo and Mike were in the plane with the pilot, while Miriam and Janet attempted to see the plane lights from the client’s apartment (which was near impossible). Tacoma investigator Stacey Brownstein videoed the experiment for use as a trial exhibit. The expert (an MIT professor) then generated a computer simulation which reconfirmed our findings: based on the reported distance and its flight path, the plane appeared as just one of many lights in the night sky, and the plane’s motion would not have been perceptible to the client.
Miriam and Mo also uncovered witnesses and documentation establishing that the night the client was in possession of the laser was almost certainly not the same night that the helicopter encountered the laser.
We took all this evidence to the Gov’t in an attempt to persuade them to dismiss. Rejecting outright any consideration of our evidence, they reacted by “changing” the location of the helicopter at the time of laser hit, contradicting the Coast Guard’s own documentation and official records. Also during that meeting, we discovered that the prosecutors and agent had withheld Brady material—information regarding the relatively low power of the laser that they had obtained several months earlier from an interview with the laser’s owner. This was information we had requested several times and which had been sitting on the agent’s phone for months.
The government ultimately offered a misdemeanor plea to simple assault. The plea did not include an admission that our client knew of the helicopter’s presence. (In other words, he assaulted Coast Guard crew while unaware that they were there.)
Our client, who has no criminal record, wanted to accept the misdemeanor offer to avoid any potential for a felony conviction. At sentencing the Government asked for 90 days imprisonment, with a vitriolic sentencing memorandum and over-the-top pitch claiming far-fetched statistical probabilities regarding the client’s intent and the threat to the lives of crew and passengers (and to citizens whose rescue would have been delayed). Miriam argued for no-custody, presenting a calm, even-keeled argument focusing on the client’s good character and history and how out of character this act was. Judge Settle found the conduct “extremely reckless” and imposed 90 days home confinement with work release, a $2000 fine, and a year probation. The client was very pleased with the result, which allows him to keep his civil rights, go to work, and move on with his life, after an interminable five years. Client was overwhelmingly appreciative of our work.
(One side-note: Mo’s airplane door opened as the plane was taking off because Mo didn’t secure it properly. The pilot, with one hand on the controls, reached over and fastened Mo’s door. Mo described it “as one of the most exhilarating moments in his defender life.”)
Our Beloved First Assistant Federal Defender Miriam Schwartz Retires!
Miriam Schwartz has retired from the Federal Defender Office after a 24-year career with the FPD, following her almost 20 year “first career” as public defender with the Seattle-King County Public Defender Association. Miriam has represented adult and juvenile clients charged with offenses ranging from misdemeanors to felonies and those facing the death penalty. She has been a leader, role model and mentor in both offices, running the appellate and felony units in King County and as the Chief Assistant FPD for the last 8 years. Her tenacity, genuine caring for her clients and her zealous representation never waned. She brought passion to her advocacy to her last day in the office and was always the first volunteer to take on another client, or help another attorney.
Miriam was well-liked and respected by her clients, judges, and even most prosecutors. But most of all she will be missed by her colleagues at the FPD and her clients. We wish Miriam a well-deserved long and happy retirement.
Maya Itah, our former 2020 summer intern, had her Comment “How the Gun Control Act Disarms Black Firearm Owners,” addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of 924(c) offenses, published in the Washington Law Review.
Caroline Lewis, a 3L at William & Mary, who interned with us this past summer wanted to share the happy news that she was offered a post-grad offer from Pierce County DAC to join them as a Public Defender after graduation. She will join another of our former interns and recent UW Law grad, Kate McCracken, at Pierce County DAC.
Please Welcome our Three New Winter Legal Interns!
Please Welcome our New Undergrad Intern!