In Change of Course, Gregoire Commutes Prisoner's Sentence

From left to right: Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church Pastor Kenneth Ransfer, Gerald Hankerson, and James Bible
Governor Gregoire has been known as one tough clemency judge, rejecting the petitions of even those the clemency board recommends for pardon. Take Gerald Hankerson, for example: in 2007, the clemency board made him only the second person in her first term to receive a unanimous recommendation of clemency. But his petition was opposed by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and by the victim's family, and Gregoire denied him clemency.

So it came as a big surprise when on Thursday, Hankerson was called into the office of the Stafford Creek Correction Center's superintendent and told, "You're a free man." It wasn't that simple, of course; he had to agree to a seven-year set of conditions similar to those of parole. But after constant lobbying from Hankerson's supporters and a letter from Satterberg's office, this time endorsing Hankerson's petition, Gregoire had conditionally commuted his sentence.

Sunday, Hankerson celebrated his release at an emotional Easter Service at Greater Mount Baker Baptist Church and at a Renton dinner party thrown by his supporters. Locked up since he was 18, the 40-year-old Hankerson had become a cause celebre among local criminal justice-reform activists, including the Seattle/King County NAACP and its president, James Bible.

His case is summarized in this P-I article from 2007. The gist of it: when he was 18, he says he stopped by a corner store to get someone over 21 to buy him beer. He says that he saw two men chasing Nai Van Saeturn, a 27-year-old who had just bought some pop at the store; Hankerson says he thought Saeturn had taken their money and kept the beer for himself, so he grabbed Saeturn and then tackled him. When the other two men caught up to Saeturn, one of them, Alvin Mitchell, stabbed him to death.

Mitchell told police that he and Hankerson had planned to rob Saeturn, and that Hankerson beat Saeturn while Mitchell stabbed him. On that evidence as well as the testimony of several witnesses, and despite some misgivings by the jury, Hankerson was convicted as an accomplice to aggravated first degree murder and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Later, two of the key witnesses--also teens looking to score beer--recanted, saying they had been pressured into their testimony.

Sunday included some mention of the facts of his case. Bible talked about the numerous legal appeals, and Hankerson voiced his desire to apologize to Saeturn's family. "First chance I get I'm gonna give my apology...I wrote to the victim's family. Even though I didn't take his life, I am responsible because I could've prevented it and my action that stopped this guy allowed it to happen."

But the focus was mainly on Hankerson's life in prison and his plans moving forward. At the dinner party, flanked by his girlfriend Michelle--whom he got to know when she was a criminal justice student and later a prison volunteer--and a gaggle of supporters, including those with whom he'd served time, Hankerson reminisced on being a 19-year-old in solitary confinement in the same row as the death row inmates in Walla Walla. He ran off a list of names (Charles Campbell, Mitchell Rupe, et. al.) and recalled how "they told me I was the unlucky one; they got to die, I had to spend the rest of my life in misery in prison."

Hankerson and his fellow prison alums also recalled Hankerson's successful move to integrate the then-all-white Concerned Lifers Organization--a move that the others seemed to think was insane and that led Hankerson to fear for his life--and how his leadership of both that and the Black Prisoners Caucus earned him the nickname "The Governor." His popularity in prison was evidenced by the constant stream of congratulatory calls he received from those who are still locked up.

One of the calls was from Barry Massey, who was profiled in Nina Shapiro's piece and who was sentenced to life without parole for an aggravated murder conviction at the age of 13. Hankerson calls Massey his best friend. The two entered Walla Walla the same year; Hankerson was 18, Massey 13. Said Hankerson, "My better half is in prison still. I'm extremely grateful, but he deserved [to be released] more than me. The only thing I'm saying to everyone in this state, man, [is] we should be embarrassed about locking someone up for life who's 13. At what point do you forgive?" Hankerson said he wants to bring attention to ex-offenders who have been rehabilitated, so that society "can see the need to give people second chances."

He still seemed in disbelief at his first glimpse of the outside world in over 22 years. When another man mentioned that he'd served six years, Hankerson quipped that he'd done six years in the shower alone. And he laughed as he recalled how he tried to bus his own table at a Northgate restaurant on his first meal out.

"I'm livin' the dream," he shouted across the room to Keith Brooks, a fellow former inmate who now teaches non-violent communication in prisons. "I can't even see this in a dream."

"Me either," said Brooks.

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