This story has been corrected. The third from last paragraph was changed to reflect the fact that Mr. Satterberg was not involved in the wrongful conviction case of Steve Titus.
The usual Republican suspects lined up behind interim King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg at a campaign kickoff breakfast last Thursday at the Westin Hotel, headed by popular former Gov. Dan Evans. But a few Democrats, such as Snohomish County Prosecutor Janice Ellis, were in attendance as well--or at least sent regrets in support for the heir apparent to late prosecutor Norm Maleng.
"I've never doubted [Satterberg's] unwavering commitment to do what is right," said attorney and Democratic activist Jenny Durkan, a University of Washington law school chum of Satterberg's, in a statement read to the coffee-sipping Westin crowd by attorney Kathy Goater. The downtown law firms were also represented, wall to wall, causing King County Sheriff and Satterberg fund-raiser Sue Rahr to quip that the crowd was filled with "a bunch of big-shot attorneys, who can afford to give."
But most of all there was Maleng—everywhere. For 28 years, the evenhanded prosecutor won office simply by filing for it. In a town teeming with lefties, Republican Maleng was opposed just twice during eight campaigns. As local legends go, he was Ichiro with a subpoena.
One might think all that would vanish with Maleng's May 24 death from a heart attack. But as certain as the surname of the next elected prosecutor will begin with "S" and that he will be a married, white, midcareer male attorney with two kids—as is the case with Satterberg and both his Democratic challengers, Bill Sherman and Keith Scully—you can be assured Maleng is a favorite in this campaign, too.
To wit, Maleng's photo is on Satterberg's campaign fliers, which urge voters to "retain" the never-elected Satterberg, Maleng's chief of staff who was appointed to his boss' seat two months ago. And Maleng's name is regularly on Satterberg's lips, as it was on those of every speaker at the kickoff breakfast last Thursday. Among them, not surprisingly, was Judy Maleng, Norm's widow, who told supporters that this "is a time to embrace our new leader."
In the first race for King County prosecutor in nine years to feature Democratic opposition, the Democrats are also co-opting Maleng, often mentioning him during their own stump speeches. Sherman, 39, a deputy county prosecutor for the past four years who failed in a 2006 statehouse bid, says he was proud to work under Maleng, and adds that "the standard [Maleng] set for impartiality, fairness, and evenhandedness should be required for all who follow him." Scully, 34, who also worked as a Maleng deputy (1999 to 2005), defers to the late prosecutor for campaign advice. "[Maleng] always said that you should do something with your life before running for office," Scully recalls. "I've done that."
But things don't all amount to a full-on Maleng love-in on the campaign trail. "The office needs a fresh vision for its future that takes account of its many strengths," says Scully, "but also updates the focus on the crimes of today." Adds Sherman, in a thinly veiled swipe at Satterberg: "Any administration gets into a rut over time, and our office was no different. In some cases, our bureaucracy has stagnated, and our top management is no longer innovative in its approaches to justice."
Still, it helps to Be Like Norm in '07, and of the three candidates, Satterberg had the longest professional and personal relationship with the late prosecutor. "Every major case and issue we handled as a team," says Satterberg, 47, Maleng's staff chief for 17 years, "so I know what his instincts were and how to lead both inside and outside of the office."
Satterberg also promises to follow Maleng's lead on controversial issues such as the death penalty, approaching capital punishment "in the same manner that Norm did." During his tenure, Maleng sought death sparingly, weighing mitigating factors and trial costs. For one, he chose not to seek capital punishment for Naveed Haq, who killed one and wounded five at the Jewish Federation offices downtown last year. More famously and controversially, he agreed to send Green River killer Gary Ridgway to prison for life rather than the gallows in exchange for the serial murderer's help in clearing up some of his 48 slayings.
Satterberg's first death penalty case, which he inherited from Maleng, is set to begin in November with the trial of Conner Schierman, 25, accused of killing four members of a Kirkland family last year. "We currently have three death penalty cases in the office: two in the appellate courts and one awaiting trial," Satterberg says, "and we will proceed with those cases."
If elected, Democrat Scully says he "will apply the death penalty only in the most extreme cases," while Sherman says he'd be willing to employ the death penalty "in rare cases"—but has serious concerns about its application. "There have been too many death row DNA exonerations, and too much evidence that it often gets applied unfairly," he reasons.
If Satterberg is campaigning on his predecessor's successes, don't his perceived shortcomings matter, too? In his three decades as prosecutor, Maleng never charged a law enforcement officer in any of an estimated 100 suspect deaths involving an officer that were reviewed by an inquest jury, and wouldn't act even on the rare occasion that inquest juries were critical of officer conduct, such as the 1988 shooting of a man wielding a TV remote, and the 1995 killing of a mentally disabled man in possession of a squirt gun who was shot 19 times.
Satterberg can't directly say, without a case before him, whether he'll take a different approach. At his kickoff, he spoke at surprising length about judicial compassion, changing the system to help more kids "who are just starting to dabble in crime," and of his goal even to help end homelessness. He also mentioned he is backed by the Seattle and King County police unions.
The Maleng-Satterberg reign also includes three separate cases in the late 1990s when Malengs office wrongly prosecuted three men. Included was a man who spent 124 days in jail mistakenly charged with killing his girlfriend. Another man was jailed 231 days for an assault he didn't commit. In that case, Satterberg said the office followed the law, and he regretted the mistake, but, on the upside, "In the end, the system worked," he said.
"Our office is entrusted with enormous power and discretion, but also with the mission to seek justice in every criminal case we handle," says Satterberg today. "That sometimes means not using all of the power we have, but rather trying to be measured in our approach."
Deputy prosecutor and Democratic opponent Sherman has another view. "When evidence emerges that an innocent person may have been wrongfully convicted," says Sherman, "does the leadership of the office dig in its heels and refuse to acknowledge error, or does it move quickly to ensure that justice is served? I'm not sure the office has always met that test in the past."