A call from the Seattle City Attorney for a municipal court judge to step down from his position leading the court over “apparent violations of the canons of judicial ethics” is also shining new light on Seattle media and activists who claim they are dedicated to shaping more accountable government in the city.
Pete Holmes and Anita Khandelwal, director of the Department of Public Defense, say in a letter released Wednesday that Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ed McKenna should step down as presiding judge and recuse himself from criminal cases after “predetermining harsh outcomes for defendants and advertising the sentencings to local media,” Crosscut reports.
The case at the center of the unusual courtroom activities has a Capitol Hill connection. The crime took place last November when an angry man punched a victim without provocation in the crosswalk at Broadway and Pine. The blow sent the victim’s headphones flying and left the shaken man with a swollen lip. It landed the assailant, Francisco Calderon, in jail and set in motion a bizarre episode in Seattle justice with a judge allegedly shaping his proceedings for a television reporter and a political group.
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Holmes and Khandelwal say McKenna regularly “criticized the City’s sentencing recommendations” and “urged the City to request longer sentences so that you can impose a sentence between the City’s and defense’s recommendations” —
As Calderon’s case played out with a plea agreement focused on his mental health, Holmes and Khandelwal say McKenna sentenced him, instead, to 364 days in jail. “This was an extraordinary sentence, the maximum allowed by the law, rarely imposed in Seattle Municipal Court,” they write.
They say McKenna went even further by issuing a so-called drag order “requiring corrections officers to bring (Calderon) to court against his will.”
Why the big show? A KOMO television reporter and a member of a political group dedicated to pro-policing and incarceration policies were — surprisingly — in the courtroom to witness the proceedings:
“Your invitation to Ms. Coats and apparent invitation to Mr. Markovich suggests you decided the outcome in Mr. Calderon’s matter before sentencing – before the parties had an opportunity to present argument and before Mr. Calderon could address the court,” the letter calling for McKenna to step down reads. “These statements and your invitation constitute a non-public statement indicating you had decided the outcome of the sentencing prior to hearing argument. Your invitation essentially constituted a pledge to do something unusual in Mr. Calderon’s case.”
Speak out Seattle has denied that Jennifer Coats is part of the group, saying that Holmes and Khandelwal “have confused us with another organization.” The City Attorney’s office acknowledged Thursday morning that it should have identified the organization as Safe Seattle, a similar advocacy campaign that shares similar points of view to the Speak out Seattle effort.
In late January, the results of the Safe Seattle advocate’s attendance at the hearing played out in a report from Seattle talk and news radio station KIRO FM that explained how Coats was “inspired to take a closer look at Seattle’s crime and its justice system after running into Seattle Judge Ed McKenna.” KIRO FM reported Coats’ thoughts on the Calderon case and her advocacy for less lenient sentences:
“Probation didn’t sound like reasonable sentencing either since there is no accountability for Calderon,” Coats said. “He has offended many times while on probation.” The case drew Coats’ interest. She has concerns with how the city treats repeat, violent offenders. “The hearings that I witnessed, they were all pretty much the same,” she said. “They were dismissing charges and letting people free to go, possibly on probation, but not wanting to put them in jail. With a matter of violent crimes, I think public safety needs to be of concern; not allowing somebody to go back out onto the streets to re-offend, which this person has done 72 times.”
Matt Markovich, meanwhile, filled this story for KOMO: “Seattle City Attorney asks for freedom for man convicted 72 times.” Markovich notes that McKenna “declined our request for an interview.”
In addition to questions the situation raises about McKenna’s ethics, the case and its fallout place KOMO’s continuing “Seattle is Dying”-themed coverage of homelessness, addiction, and crime in new light. It also raises questions about the goals of pro-policing political groups which have become an active element in the district City Council races across Seattle.
CHS has asked the most recent candidates entering the race for District 3 if they would be willing to participate in a Safe Seattle or Speak out Seattle forum. “I’m open to have conversations with any voters that want to… any groups that want to be engaged,” Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce head, Pridefest organizer, and now candidate for City Council Egan Orion told CHS. Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf, on the other hand, said no. “I’m not really sure that they are completely unbiased and coming to the table in good faith, so my inclination is no,” DeWolf said.
The full letter from Holmes and Khandelwal is below.
UPDATE 4:30 PM: McKenna has responded to the letter and says he is “declining your suggestion to as Seattle Municipal Court’s presiding judge.” “I frequently invite members of the public to visit our courts to see how our system actually works,” he writes. “I categorically deny your allegations that I have violated the Cannons of Judicial Conduct by initiating invitations to my our court and by pre-determining a sentence.” The full letter is below.