Russell Harvey, who appeared in King County Superior Court via video stream from a concrete room at the Monroe Correctional Complex, told Judge David Steiner that he’s not the same man he was when he was convicted of a string of robberies and sentenced to life in prison in 1998 under the state’s three-strikes law.
He spoke of his difficult adjustment to prison and the trouble he caused behind bars. He told the judge of his struggle with addiction and mental health issues. He recalled hearing the disappointment in his mother’s voice when he told her he’d once again been put in solitary confinement, right before she hung up the phone on him. He said his mom died in January, his pain palpable as he spoke about his loss.
He talked, too, of his personal transformation, focusing on his sobriety and mental health, embracing prison programs, befriending and mentoring other people in prison, and rebuilding relationships with his father and other family members. He said he’d rather be shot in the head than return to his old life.
“I had an attitude of not caring about anything or anybody,” Harvey said during Thursday’s hearing, as he reflected on his past. “I’m just so sorry it’s come to this … It’s been a tremendous waste of a lifetime. Age doesn’t make a man at all. It’s how that man acts toward others.”
Harvey wiped tears from his eyes after Steiner resentenced him to seven years, which means Harvey will soon get out of prison, after the state Department of Corrections completes its administrative process for his release.
“Redemption, in my mind, seems to be the major theme of our hearing today,” said Steiner, who momentarily choked up. “It’s going to be a shock when you get out. I’m sure you have dreams, visions, of what it’s going to be like. It’s not going to be easy.”
Harvey thanked the judge for making what he said must have been a hard decision.
Steiner — who in his comments from the bench cited the principles of equity and justice in handing down a sentence that paves the way for Harvey’s release — replied: “Actually, it wasn’t. It was not a difficult decision, Mr. Harvey.”
Harvey, now 60, was designated a persistent offender under the state’s three-strikes law after committing a string of robberies at Seattle grocery and clothing stores and holding up clerks with a bag over his hand to imply he was armed with a gun, court records show. Each of his three strikes were convictions for second-degree robbery — typically characterized as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury to victims.
In 2019, the state Legislature removed second-degree robbery from the list of strike offenses but didn’t make the law retroactively apply to those currently serving life sentences based on at least one second-degree robbery conviction. Then last year, another bill was passed, giving county prosecutors the discretion to pursue new sentences for people they believe received overly harsh prison terms.
It was under that law that Carla Lee, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, began working with Harvey’s defense attorney to seek a new sentence that would allow for Harvey’s release.
On Thursday, Harvey became the second man from King County to be resentenced under provisions of Senate Bill 5164, which was passed by the Legislature earlier this year to retroactively apply to people like Harvey, though it technically doesn’t go into effect until July 25. The law requires prosecutors to move for resentencing the estimated 114 people statewide currently serving life sentences, with at least one strike due to a second-degree robbery conviction.
Harvey would have been first, but his initial hearing on May 21 was rescheduled after a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the courthouse in downtown Seattle. In the meantime, Lee expedited the resentencing of 65-year-old Rickey Mahaney, who is suffering from a life-threatening disease. He was released Tuesday from Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County, Lee said.
Lee has already started the process to resentence nine other defendants and expects to soon add a 10th. Her office has so far identified 45 cases involving a defendant sentenced to life in prison based on at least one second-degree robbery conviction.
Statewide, three-strikes laws have had a disproportionate impact on people of color: A majority of people serving time under the three-strikes law are white, as is Harvey, but Black people, representing about 4% of the state’s population, accounted for about 38% of people in custody for three-strikes sentences as of December.
Lee said Harvey has served more than triple the time of a standard-range sentence of 7 years for second-degree robbery.
“We heard from one victim who said she had moved on and didn’t feel the events from 24 years ago impacted her life,” Lee told the judge, noting her team reached out to others Harvey had robbed but those people didn’t respond.
Though Harvey will be living with a friend he met in prison and has a job lined up at a print shop, Andrea Altheimer, the director of re-entry at Community Passageways, told Steiner the Seattle nonprofit has a backup plan to offer Harvey transitional housing should he need it.
Altheimer, who was released from prison in March 2019 after serving more than 20 years for a nonfatal shooting, said Community Passageways — which aims to keep young people out of the legal system and helps people released from prison navigate their return to the community — will be there to support Harvey’s basic needs.
“He has a genuine spirit. He’s methodical about his plans for release,” she said of Harvey. “He speaks about (his) remorse openly and those tears, he’s unafraid to shed those publicly.”
Bruce Brummond, who has long taught a character-building course inside state corrections centers, met Harvey years ago at the now-shuttered prison on McNeil Island. He said at first, Harvey sat in a far corner, staring at the floor, but as weeks went by, Harvey moved closer and closer to Brummond, becoming his unofficial teaching assistant.
“He went from a catatonic state to helping teach the inmates on how to get along with the people around them,” Brummond told the judge, adding when Harvey was transferred to Monroe, he took it upon himself to teach Brummond’s course there. “I will be a big part of his life if he’s released from prison. He’s a magnificent man.”
Harvey’s pro-bono defense attorney, Susan Hacker, said the past year working with Lee to secure Harvey’s release from prison has been the most rewarding experience of her legal career.
“I am so happy for Russell and I’m so glad we could pull this off together. I couldn’t have done it without Carla. She was as much his advocate as I was,” Hacker said after the hearing concluded.
A former commercial litigator who retired from her job at T-Mobile last summer, Hacker plans to take on more pro-bono cases through The Seattle Clemency Project.
Though it was exhilarating to broker “gazillion dollar deals,” Hacker said her former job became almost rote, “it was like muscle memory, doing my work.”
“Russell’s case, it meant so much more,” she said. “It’s the most important thing I’ve done since I became a lawyer in 1987.”