Mark Larson, King County’s long-serving chief criminal deputy prosecutor, has a number of sayings that have become part of the collective wisdom among local attorneys responsible for prosecuting criminal defendants accused of crimes ranging from driving under the influence to murder.
“Speak the truth in love” is his advice for delivering difficult news to crime victims and their families.
“Everyone is carrying a heavy load” is a reminder that everyone involved in the criminal-justice system — police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and victim advocates — is doing hard work that can take an emotional toll.
“It’s moments, not minutes, that matter” speaks to Larson’s focus on building meaningful relationships and taking the time so others feel heard.
After 35 years in the prosecutor’s office, the last 26 as head of the criminal division, Larson retired on Christmas Eve, marking the end of an era for an office that has seen remarkable stability in its leadership even as criminal cases have become increasingly complex. Evidence from cellphones, computers and body-worn cameras coupled with advances in DNA and forensic sciences now produce voluminous amounts of discovery.
“There’s a broad array of subject matters you have to have some expertise in,” Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of Larson’s position. “I remember trying cases and you’d have an inch of paper. Now it’s boxes and boxes.”
Larson, 62, has had a hand in training and mentoring a younger generation of leaders within the prosecutor’s office, including his replacement. His departure comes amid a wave of promotions, with Satterberg handpicking senior deputy prosecutors for key positions in the criminal division:
- Dan Clark, who for 13 years served as managing attorney and assistant chief criminal deputy at the Maleng Regional Justice (RJC) in Kent, succeeds Larson as chief criminal deputy prosecutor.
- Erin Ehlert also did double duty as assistant chief criminal deputy at the Seattle courthouse and as the co-chairperson of the Most Dangerous Offender Program (MDOP), a group of veteran trial attorneys who are dispatched to homicide scenes across the county and typically retain their cases through trial. Ehlert will become MDOP’s senior leader, replacing Brian McDonald who was appointed to the King County Superior Court bench in August by Gov. Jay Inslee to replace retired Judge Laura Inveen.
- Mary Barbosa, a longtime MDOP attorney, will serve as Ehlert’s co-chair, and Karissa Taylor, who has spent recent years analyzing gun violence, was promoted to vice chairperson of the MDOP unit.
- Wyman Yip, who has spent the last seven years as an MDOP attorney, replaces Clark as assistant chief criminal deputy prosecutor at the RJC.
- Christina Miyamasu, the former vice chairperson of the domestic-violence unit, replaces Ehlert as assistant chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Seattle.
In an office that’s seen only four elected prosecutors since 1948, Satterberg and Larson — who started as interns together in 1984 — have spent their professional lives putting into practice lessons they learned under late Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who hired them and promoted them to leadership positions when they were both in their 30s.
When Maleng, a well-loved community leader who served as prosecutor for nearly three decades, died of a heart attack in 2007, Satterberg, who was Maleng’s chief of staff, stepped into the role of acting prosecutor and has since been elected four times. He never considered moving Larson to a different post.
“Norm’s unexpected death was enough of a shake-up for the office. Mark is my friend and longtime law partner, and I wanted him to steer the ship,” Satterberg, 59, said. “There’s nothing contrived about Mark. He’s a very genuine person. He’s a leader who has no ego and no interest in self-promotion or the limelight.”
The son of a pastor, Larson grew up on the East Coast and studied criminal justice at Florida State University. After graduating in 1980, he worked for a couple years as a probation officer, a job he says he wasn’t very good at. The day he left Florida to attend law school in Seattle, his “prize pupil” — who presented himself as a reformed biker — robbed a bank and got into a shootout with police.
“He played me,” Larson said wryly.
Larson has been at the prosecutor’s office since graduating in 1985 from the University of Puget Sound Law School (which later became Seattle University). Married to his wife Kirsten for three years, Larson has two grown children from a previous marriage. His son and daughter-in-law are both deputy prosecutors in the office.
“Some people believe prosecution is on the wrong side of social justice … Our function is viewed somewhat skeptically” given the power prosecutors have, Larson said. That’s why he has stressed to younger deputies that they conduct themselves to the highest standard in every encounter they have with jurors and witnesses, he said.
“People here take seriously the fact they’re giving voice to people who, for one reason or another, don’t have one — domestic-violence victims, child victims of sex abuse, homicide victims,” Larson said. “It’s sort of a holy calling for us and it’s a grand, grand privilege.”
Leading and being part of a team has made for a rewarding career, said Larson, who never wanted to find himself “sitting alone on the bench” as a judge.
After seeing so many younger deputies moving into leadership roles since summer, Larson said he feels the office is in a good place.
“I came to the belief passing the baton isn’t a failure. Passing the baton to a capable group of leaders, that’s success,” he said.
Larson is spending January in California babysitting his infant granddaughter and plans to teach a class at Seattle University in April about eyewitness identifications that led to wrongful convictions. He also plans to travel, ride his motorcycle and continue coaching youth lacrosse.
Clark, the attorney succeeding Larson, said he sees his role as continuing the caring, open culture Larson and others have worked to maintain.
“Most people in the office haven’t worked under a (criminal) chief other than Mark, myself included. He’s synonymous with the position,” said Clark, 48, a divorced father of two teenage sons.
In Larson, he said, there’s “a humility that is really profound in leadership that you don’t always see.”
“For Mark, it’s never about him but the team, the staff, the office and this recognition we do important work impacting people’s lives and it’s work that matters,” he said.
Clark grew up in Los Angeles and attended law school at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was considering becoming a public defender when, during his first summer internship in California, he helped represent a client he believed was innocent. After he and the trial attorney presented their reasoning to the prosecutor, she shrugged it off and said, “I could use the trial experience,” Clark recalled. They went to trial and the client was found not guilty.
It ended up being a transformative experience, he said.
“I wanted to ensure justice was done in every case, and I saw the discretion the prosecutor had,” Clark said. He decided to change tracks “so I could be a check from the inside.”
The following summer, Clark came to Seattle and interned in the prosecutor’s office here. He said he fell in love with the city and the profession.
Hired by Maleng in 1996, Clark has worked a number of assignments in the office, including arguing cases before the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
He said he’s enjoyed his time working at the RJC, which, when it was built in 1997, was expected to handle 30% of the county’s felony case load. But with population growth, it’s closer to 45%. Like Larson before him, Clark will oversee 170 attorneys assigned to the criminal division in both Seattle and Kent.
While serving at the RJC, Clark developed a reputation in South King County as someone looking to build bridges with police chiefs, mayors, public defenders and community groups, something he hopes to continue in Seattle.
“You don’t need a bar card to have good ideas or to speak the truth,” Clark said. “Good ideas come from everywhere and my job as a leader is to elevate those voices and break barriers.”