Rookie mistake?

Exception taken to an "exceptional" judge.

No one argues that Lynda Hunter doesn't need help. A familiar figure on Seattle's streets, the large (230 pounds) 50-year-old black woman berates and assaults strangers, strolls into bars and drinks from customers' glasses, and spends hours on street corners glaring at passersby. In the University District, when police tried to arrest her for beating up pedestrians, she told a cop, "I'll go peacefully," then punched him. Since 1974, she's been in and out of Western State Hospital 22 times, most recently released from the legal offenders unit after spending five years for third degree assault. In a jailhouse interview with a psychiatrist, she opened a rambling five-minute soliloquy with "I'm a doctor too! I'm pregnant. I want to go to court."

And to court, again, she went the other day, standing mutely before freshman municipal court judge Anne Levinson, the politically appointed, handpicked candidate of Mayor Paul Schell. He skirted a committee selection and screening process by claiming the ex-deputy mayor and state utilities chair had "exceptional" judicial qualities. During a January confirmation hearing and love-in, Levinson promised adoring city council members that defendants "do not have to worry about whether the system is discriminatory when they're in my court" (See "Judgment week," SW, 2/18).

Hunter and her public-defender attorneys beg to differ. Levinson's adjudication of Hunter's latest case "fell far short of due process," says defender Kim Gordon. Levinson misread the law and gave unfair weight to the claims of the city prosecutor's office May 11 when she ordered Hunter involuntarily recommitted and forcibly medicated at Western State, Gordon and co-counsel Daniel Gross contend.

They were not yet convinced Hunter was unable to assist in her defense, while the city, they felt, was offering inconclusive evidence that fell short of legal definitions for violent acts and mental incompetency. No matter that the city court tends to be legal mass-production and that Hunter has been previously declared insane; her attorneys were meeting their mandate to give Hunter the best possible defense.

Upset by Levinson's decision—which she would not explain from the bench—the two defenders walked across the street and filed an immediate appeal in King County Superior Court. A few days later, Levinson was emphatically reversed. Judge Kathleen Learned said a misdemeanant defendant who has been found to be incompetent in a city court must be afforded the same protections as a felony defendant. The evidence must be specific and witnesses must be available to testify. "The court finds," Learned ruled, "that the petitioner, Ms. Lynda Hunter, was deprived of these constitutional and procedural protections." She ordered Levinson's ruling vacated and a new hearing held.

The supposedly separate powers of the city and Levinson have now joined forces as copetitioners seeking a court of appeals review. Eventually, Hunter likely will be returned to Western, but if Learned's ruling stands this must be done under the full application of due process. As for Levinson's reversal, some legal observers say it's too early to draw broad conclusions. "Maybe just a rookie mistake," says a Seattle attorney. "It's not like she has experience."

 
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