The Inmate Who Won’t Shut Up

Allan Parmelee has a low batting average, but a few big hits.

Allan Parmelee spends his days in a cell, most recently at McNeil Island Corrections Center, carefully hand-printing lawsuits, motions, records requests, and legal appeals on a pad of lined paper. Known to fellow inmates as the "jailhouse attorney," he's filed dozens of lawsuits in state and federal courts. His complaints have spanned everything from denial of habeas corpus to assault by jail guards and other inmates to unfair treatment at the hands of his ex-wife's attorney. He usually represents himself. Most of Parmelee's suits are thrown out by a judge in short order, but every once in a while something sticks: Last month, he got a big win challenging a state criminal-libel law that dates back to the Civil War era. On July 20, 2005, Parmelee wrote a letter to then–Department of Corrections secretary Harold Clarke complaining about the conditions at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, where Parmelee was then incarcerated. He attributed the problem to the institution's (female) boss at the time: "Having a man-hater lesbian as a superintendent is like throwing gas on [an] already smoldering fire," he wrote, according to court records. Three months later he was charged under an 1869 law that prohibits all Washington citizens from exposing "any living person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or to deprive him of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse." Violation of the law is a gross misdemeanor. At a jail hearing, Parmelee was found guilty and sentenced to 10 days of isolation. True to form, Parmelee then sued the Department of Corrections, saying his right to free speech had been impinged. A Clallam County Superior Court judge threw out the suit. Appealing to a higher court, Parmelee sought help from the Public Interest Law Group. "Personally I found [Parmelee's] letter offensive," says attorney Hank Balson, who represented Parmelee in the appeal. "But what I found even more offensive was the DOC's reaction to it." Usually people who print libelous statements are pursued in civil court. If something is written that is both false and damages someone's reputation in a way that hurts their income or community standing, that's libel. When pursued in civil court, victims can get financial recompense and often a published apology. In criminal court, the victim doesn't stand to gain anything, which may be part of the reason why the law has gone out of use. Eric Stahl, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Parmelee, believes the old criminal law was trotted out by jail personnel looking for a way to punish a bothersome inmate. "The Department of Corrections stumbled on it when they were looking for a way to prosecute this guy," he says. In a brief filed during the appeals process, the ACLU pointed out that nearly all other state criminal-libel statutes have been struck down under a 1964 federal Supreme Court decision. On June 19, the Washington State Court of Appeals sided with Parmelee, writing in an opinion that the state law does indeed run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling allows Parmelee to take his case back to Superior Court and seek money from the DOC for violating his rights by disciplining him under an unconstitutional law. The DOC hasn't yet decided whether to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Parmelee's legal briefs are all handwritten, and mimic the legalese used by licensed attorneys. As firms do with professional legal filings, Parmelee prints his name and address—usually a DOC facility—in the lower right-hand corner of each page. That address is the result of the other reason Parmelee spends so much time in the courts: his extensive criminal record. According to an arrest report, he had racked up convictions in North Carolina, Florida, and Illinois long before he came to Washington a decade ago. After serving time for smuggling undocumented immigrants, Parmelee got married in 1994 and moved with his then-wife, to Seattle, where they had a son. Three years later, she filed for divorce. The proceedings got messy, and Parmelee developed an intimate knowledge of the state legal system, filing more than 60 motions before and during the three-week trial, according to his now ex-wife's attorney Kathryn Jenkins. "He uses the law as a sword," she says. None of Parmelee's motions had much success, but Jenkins alleges that he became physically threatening as well. At one point, he set up a Web site with a map to Jenkins' home. Another time he called Jenkins' assistant with threats, Jenkins says. Then on Valentine's Day 1998 someone poured gasoline into the passenger seat of Jenkins' husband's Ford truck and threw in a lighter. Hearing a car, she went to the window to see the truck engulfed in flames. Jenkins suspected Parmelee, but he wasn't charged at the time. Parmelee's ex-wife walked away from the divorce with the house and a restraining order. But Parmelee didn't stay away from his ex, and was convicted in 1998 of violating the order and one count of felony stalking. He was sentenced to four years in King County Jail, as the arrest also violated the terms of his release after the smuggling charge. From jail, he started filing civil suits against his ex-wife and Jenkins, accusing them of damaging his property by throwing it into his yard and conspiring to defame him. Parmelee eventually stopped pursuing Jenkins and his ex; he had new targets in his sights. In January 2002, Parmelee was released and started living with attorney Roger Madison, Jr., whom he met while incarcerated. He started working in Madison's practice, and got involved when Madison filed suit against an escort he'd met in January 2001 and proposed to a month later. The engagement didn't last, but the escort kept the $9,000 ring Madison gave her. Parmelee was assigned the task of serving the escort's attorney, Cara Starr, with papers. Starr refused to accept the documents Parmelee brought to her office, instructing him to leave them with the receptionist. According to court records, he became enraged, yelling at both of them before storming off. Then in March 2002, someone stuck a can of gasoline underneath Starr's SUV, parked outside her Bellevue condo. Around 3 a.m., neighbors heard the sound of small explosions—later found to be firecrackers—right before the SUV went up in flames. Again Parmelee fell under suspicion, and in 2004 he was convicted of two counts of first-degree arson for setting that fire and the one that struck Jenkins' husband's truck. The judge went beyond the standard sentencing range to put Parmelee behind bars for 24 years. A $50,000 fine was added. While preparing his appeal, Parmelee wrote a letter to the King County court-reporter service asking what the cost would be to receive all the trial's transcripts as well as documents that had been used in jury selection, which included biographical information on each juror. He demanded a response within 30 days, adding "Or do I need to have your fingernails extracted." Parmelee never got that appeal, says Michael Kahrs, one of his attorneys. But he has managed a couple of big wins since being incarcerated on the arson convictions. In September 2007, Parmelee was awarded $19,000 by a Mason County judge for delays by the DOC in filling his many requests, according to Kahrs. The money was put toward the fines from the arson conviction. Since then, Parmelee has continued relentlessly to file requests for personal information on the various law-enforcement and judicial staff involved in his conviction. Last December, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg sought a protection order in Superior Court forbidding Parmelee to continue filing requests under the state Public Disclosure Act. If he is forced to turn over the records requested by Parmelee, Satterberg writes in a declaration to the court, "the message to my employees would be that they can expect to be threatened and intimidated by this violent felon if they perform their jobs and participate in any court or other proceeding against him." On March 24 of this year, Judge Glenna Hall sided with Parmelee, saying that even if the nature of the requests is harassing, state law does not allow for including motive as a factor in deciding whether or not to grant a request. Another judge disagreed. Just this week, according to the Associated Press, a Franklin County judge said the jail and sheriff's office do not need to respond to any more document requests from Parmelee, finding there was "no legitimate purpose" behind Parmelee's three dozen previous requests for jail-employee photos, records, and phone numbers. King County has appealed Judge Hall's decision. Balson is again lending a hand so Parmelee won't have to rely on his handwritten legal briefs. "I think the plain language of the Public Records Act shows that it applies to all persons," Balson says. The state appellate court asked Attorney General Rob McKenna to weigh in on the bigger question of whether felons have any rights under state public-records law. He said they do not. He filed a brief on June 6 arguing that access to public records, like voting or carrying a concealed weapon, is a right forfeited when someone is convicted of a felony. According to McKenna's office, felons filed nearly 5,000 public-records requests with his office in 2007—about 73 percent of all requests received. Of those that were filled, most were never picked up or paid for, according to Attorney General spokesperson Janelle Guthrie. Balson argues that state law already specifies which rights are given up when someone commits a crime. The law also includes the method by which criminals can get those rights back after finishing their sentence. Nowhere in the state record-request laws does it say that the right to access those records can be forfeited by committing a crime. (Or by simply being obnoxious.) Meanwhile, in the three months since Judge Hall ruled in his favor, Parmelee has made 11 more record requests from King County. lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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