There he is on a magazine cover from 2005, framed in the fourth-floor foyer of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office at the downtown courthouse.
In a photo shoot designed to showcase his augustness and length of service, Norm Maleng is dressed like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, complete with jaunty pipe and aviator glasses. The headline reads: “Why this old prosecutor never dies.”
Fifteen years after his sudden death in 2007 at age 68, Maleng is still beloved in the office. His presence is everywhere, his portrait tucked into offices and cubicles. Reprinted editorial cartoons commemorating his passing hang next to diplomas and family photos.
Maleng first won election to be Prosecuting Attorney 44 years ago — the last time it was an open race. In many ways the November contest to be the next prosecutor is about which candidate can capture Maleng’s legacy of integrity, justice and compassion.
It is about the potential for institutional change at a time of unprecedented pressures on the criminal justice system.
Maleng’s chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, succeeded him. After 15 years on the job, Satterberg announced his retirement last January. Now, Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, is vying to take the seat.
Also running is Jim Ferrell, the mayor of Federal Way and a former King County prosecutor.
This is the landscape of the increasingly bitter campaign: The pandemic disrupted arrests, courts and jails. The murder of George Floyd fueled calls for immediate reforms. Violent crime spiked as societal dislocations collided with record-setting gun sales. The Seattle Police Department suffered an unprecedented staffing exodus.
Satterberg has endorsed Manion. Ferrell calls for a new direction.
For voters, the question becomes — do you believe the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office responds well to these ongoing challenges? Is there value in continuity? Are criticisms of programs and policy fair, or simply exploiting popular frustrations?
Without a doubt, the overwhelming workload and internal policy tensions within the Prosecutor’s Office have taken a toll.
On July 18, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Berliner, one of about a dozen attorneys assigned to homicide cases, sent Satterberg an email with the subject: “My resignation.”
After 23 years, Berliner wrote, the unmanageable workload, lack of value placed on her work and concerns about the future of the office’s Criminal Division left her no choice.
“We are already making filing, resolution and staffing decisions on violent crimes based on volume and political expediency,” she wrote. “I fear that in the future, due to lack of resources, skill and leadership, we will simply not be filing the cases we have in the past.”
Berliner wasn’t the only prosecutor to express misgivings about leadership. In a 2019 employee survey of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 42% of respondents said they had no opinion or disagreed with the statement: “Department leadership does what it says it’s going to do.” A more recent survey in 2021 did not specifically ask about leadership.
In March of 2020, the first month of the pandemic, there were 3,621 open cases in King County Superior Court — criminal charges that had not been resolved by verdict, plea or dismissal. By March of 2021, that number ballooned to 6,139. It has slowly drifted down and now stands at about 4,500.
A big contributor to the backlog is what the office calls “very serious crimes,” a catchall of violent offenses that comprise an ever-increasing share of the overall caseload. With disease precautions, jury trials take longer now. Before the pandemic about 358 cases each month were resolved by plea agreements. That number has significantly dropped as defendants opt to take their chances in court.
The election of either Manion or Ferrell will determine whether and how the Prosecuting Attorney dismisses thousands of felony cases to get ahead of the backlog.
On Aug. 4, a group of South King County mayors including Ferrell signed an open letter venting their frustration about crime and violence.
Besides criticizing police reforms passed by the Legislature, the mayors went after the Prosecutor’s Office. It took too long for criminal charges to be filed and resolved. Potential felonies are charged as lesser misdemeanors or not at all. Juvenile and adult offenders have charges deferred, but treatment and other rehabilitation programs are limited and have no accountability for failure.
“And while the Cities support efforts to reform criminals and stop the revolving door of incarceration by treating the underlying conditions that lead to criminal activity, services must be available and proven, must be accompanied by real consequences for failure, must be equitably available, and the safety of the community must be the most important consideration,” the mayor’s wrote.
Satterberg pushed back. In an Aug. 22 letter, he noted that the Prosecutor’s Office files 20-30 adult felony cases each day, with the majority involving violent offenses or repeat offenders.
And Satterberg noted that his office can file charges only after cases are investigated by police and turned over to prosecutors. Satterberg cited statistics that showed felony referrals from cops in South King County cities to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office dropped by 28.5% from 2019-2021. Police cases from Federal Way — where Ferrell is mayor — dropped 29%.
When I was assigned the King County courts beat for this newspaper in the late 1990s, I covered Norm Maleng. I remember him as an affable man who had experienced great personal loss with the death of his young daughter in a sledding accident. He created an atmosphere where lawyers didn’t pass through on their way to a better-paying job at a private firm. Public service meant standing up for the victim and the community.
In 2000, I wrote about the record number of drug cases moving through the courthouse. Maleng set a policy that routinely charged people arrested with crack pipes encrusted with cocaine residue — an amount so small it couldn’t be measured — with felony drug possession.
Values change over time. The Prosecutor’s Office stopped that practice years ago, and in 2021 the Legislature prevented charging a person with drug possession until treatment had been offered.
Maleng’s legacy is more symbolic now. It’s about how the office is perceived in the community, and how the attorneys and staff see themselves.
Prosecuting Attorney is a big, respected job. Voters will have to decide which candidate rises to the office, and how it will be defined when there is no consensus about what justice means, even by the people who work there.