No Cop-Out

This might be a textbook case of a man worthy of a governor's pardon, and it's not a storybook tale.

You don't need to be in a death-row cell to have the governor save your life at the last minute. In the unusual case of John Michael Echeveste, it was a professional life that needed a reprieve. Just days before Gov. Gary Locke left office last month, Echeveste got what he needed—a pardon for a felony transgression in an earlier career.

If the 46-year-old Echeveste's name sounds familiar, it's because he is the former Seattle cop who made headlines in 1988 and 1989 for being arrested, fired, and eventually imprisoned for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old prostitute while on the job. Convicted of two felony counts of third-degree statutory rape, the former Seattle Pacific University basketball player served five months in jail, was divorced, and, for the next 10 years, joined the ranks of the state's registered sex offenders.

Such setbacks can trigger irreversible decline, and for a time Echeveste hovered on that brink. "I think anyone in my position back then would have considered some of the same thoughts and feelings that I went through—guilt, embarrassment, shame, depression, hopelessness, and even suicide," he says. Instead, he took his personal healing program into the ultimate healing profession, getting a job just six months after his 1990 release from jail with Overlake Hospital and Medical Center in Bellevue, cleaning and assembling surgical instruments. That led to surgical-tech training at Renton Vocational College and an attendant promotion at Overlake.

In 1994, with the encouragement of colleagues, he completed coursework at Shoreline Community College that enabled him to be admitted the next year into the highly competitive University of Washington Medex Physician Assistant program. By 1997, Escheveste had a physician's assistant degree from the UW School of Medicine.

At every step of his new career, Escheveste disclosed his status as a convicted felon and registered sex offender. With the help of Seattle attorney Bonnie Bakeman-Harrison and a host of credible character references, he cleared the considerable hurdles that allowed him to receive a Washington state license to practice medicine in late 1998. "Besides learning more medicine in two years than you can imagine," he says, "I had the kind of extensive training in ethics and professional boundaries that could have helped me in my earlier life—when I was new and unsure how to handle the power of authority as a cop."

Escheveste hired on at Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle and rose to become its top neurosurgical assistant, lending his skills to hundreds of operations on brain tumors, spinal-cord tumors, and intercranial aneurysms. "His instincts are truly unique. . . . He is the best I have seen in my career of 20 years," says Dr. Steven Klein, Northwest's chief of surgery. "If someone were going to operate on me, I would have this guy help."

All that changed abruptly on April 11, 2004, when Escheveste was approached outside a Northwest operating room by a hospital official. Within minutes, he was told to hand over his ID badge and clean out his locker—he was fired. It took some time for Escheveste and his startled superiors to understand why.

"I was told that I had to leave immediately because of my past conviction, even though I had disclosed it during my initial job application six years earlier," Escheveste says. "I was told that the laws had changed and attorneys for the hospital believed that I could no longer work [there]."

Losing his job in such a way took Escheveste back to the hopelessness and despair he experienced a decade and a half before. "Trying to explain to everyone that I had not committed any new crime or violated any hospital rules or procedures, that I was asked to leave the premises immediately and not return, was not only embarrassing but made me feel guilty—even though I did nothing wrong," he says.

With the encouragement of colleagues, Escheveste hired top Seattle criminal-defense attorney Jim Lobsenz to get a hearing before the state Credentials Quality Board. Lobsenz was able to persuade the board last summer that hospital officials had wrongly misinterpreted a law that authorized the state Department of Health to come up with new licensing requirements to ensure that sex offenders don't come into unsupervised contact with vulnerable patients.

The board agreed, and Echeveste was offered his job back within 10 minutes of the decision, after nearly five months out of work. But as long as he was a convicted felon, there was no guarantee that the same thing wouldn't happen again. The only solution was to ask Gov. Gary Locke for a pardon.

Late last October, Echeveste had his hearing before the state Clemency and Pardons Board, sandwiched by pleas from convicted murderers looking for Jesus-inspired shortcuts out of long jail terms. With him was Klein, and in his petition packet were letters on his behalf—including pleas from a Port of Seattle police lieutenant and former Falcon teammate, Seattle attorney Bobby Borromeo, and Kathy George, a law student and longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter whose lengthy, emotional letter quoted William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and William Penn on her friend's behalf. "Justice already has exacted a heavy price for Mr. Echeveste's long-past mistake," wrote George, who recruited Lobsenz, her former Seattle University adjunct law professor, to take on the case. "He lost his job, his marriage, his freedom, and the good name he had earned from a lifetime of otherwise model behavior."

Even the incident that got Echeveste fired and jailed was portrayed as a good deed gone wrong. Petition testimony indicated that Echeveste tried to get the teen prostitute, who had come to him "repeatedly" for help, off the streets by paying for her to stay in a motel. "He has told me that he had oral sex with her, that he did not initiate it, and that he somehow accepted it at the time because she knew no other way of thanking him," George wrote.

Some Clemency and Pardons Board members, who rejected about three- quarters of the petitions brought before them in 2004, were initially hostile to Echeveste's case. Board member Raul Almeida, police chief of the Eastern Washington town of Mabton, says his first impression was "negative," and board member Wendell DeBoer, retired from a 34-year career in the Seattle Police Department, was even more blunt. "I'm disgusted by what you've done," DeBoer told Echeveste at the Oct. 29 hearing. "You've disgraced our profession."

But the five-member panel ultimately found Echeveste's long history of progressive rehabilitation more persuasive—as well as his ownership of his crime. By unanimous vote, they found that his case met the threshold of "extraordinary circumstances" needed to recommend that the governor grant him a pardon. Board Chair Robert Winsor, a retired King County Superior Court and state appeals court judge, called Echeveste's case a "textbook example" of pardon worthiness.

In the 20-year history of the Clemency and Pardons Board, Washington's governors have usually—but far from always—followed its recommendations. And while Locke was not bound by law to decide on Echeveste's petition before leaving office last month, he did, just two days before giving way to Christine Gregoire. His decision: "complete and unconditional pardon."

A textbook example is what Echeveste might be, but he wishes it were not so. "I am not sure my life would be a good example for others who are trying to better their lives," he says. "I would not wish anyone to experience the trials and errors I went through in order to learn the life lessons I have. I would give or do anything to turn back time and make different decisions."

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