A pair of worthy pleas for mercy illustrate the need for a review of the state’s Three Strikes law.
THE only relief valve for people convicted under Washington’s 22-year-old “three-strikes” law is the mercy of the governor. Last week, two extremely worthy candidates for that extraordinary relief had their cases heard by the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board.
Paul Rivers was the first person given a life sentence under Washington’s groundbreaking three-strikes law. His brother, David Conyers, was the youngest person to be “struck out.”
The brothers got life sentences in the mid-1990s — just after Washington in 1993 became the first state to pass a three-strikes law — for their final crime of second-degree robbery. Rivers’ final crime was a $337 robbery of an espresso stand. Conyers committed a string of convenience-store robberies. Both men were unarmed; they pretended to have weapons by pointing a finger in their pockets.
Absent the three-strikes law, the sentence for second-degree robbery was about 20 months in prison, said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who testified Friday in support of both commutation petitions.
Instead, they’ve now served more than two decades — a sentence equivalent to first-degree murder. And absent an act of grace by Gov. Jay Inslee, they’ll die in prison.
“It always struck me as somewhere between 20 months and forever is fair,” Satterberg said.
That vast disproportionality prompted regret from a juror in Rivers’ case, the sentencing judges for both men and former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, who wrote a blistering dissent when Rivers’ case was heard before the high court.
“I was shocked that he received life without the possibility of parole for stealing $300 armed with a finger in his pocket,” Sanders said Friday, in support of Rivers’ petition.
The clemency board voted unanimously in favor of both men’s pleas for mercy. Clemency board member Steve Strachan, the Bremerton police chief, said he had “not seen a clearer case” worthy of commutation than Rivers’.
These cases are strong candidates for commutation in part because of Satterberg’s unwavering leadership on reviewing three-strikes cases. Noting that the 1993 initiative specifically called for clemency reviews, Satterberg has supported seven petitions to commute three-strike life sentences since 2009.
But Satterberg’s courage in specific cases does not fix the need for a fundamental review for the 289 people currently serving life sentences. Some may be abysmal candidates for clemency. Others, like Rivers and Conyers, may exemplify the disproportionality in sentences for men of color and seeds movements like Black Lives Matter. A reckoning is needed.
Inslee should start that by approving the commutation requests by Rivers and Conyers.
The Legislature should also listen to calls by Satterberg and others to revisit a law that sends black men to the slow death of a life sentence for petty robberies. Justice in some of these cases is, as Satterberg said, short of forever.