Thomas Butler thought he might finally have a chance to go home.
In 2010, when Butler was 26, he was sentenced to life without parole in prison under Washington’s frequent felony The statute, known as the “three strikes”. Passed by voters during the height of the “hard-crime” frenzy of the 1990s, the three-strike law requires mandatory life imprisonment for those repeatedly convicted of certain crimes, including robbery, assault and murder.
Amid the 2020 nationwide protests over policing and incarceration racism, Washington’s three strikes law was a clear target for reform. This has resulted in life without parole sentences for many, including Butler, whose crimes did not result in death or long-term bodily injury for the victims. Although black people represent just 4% of the state’s population, they Accounts for 38% of those convicted under three attacks,
In recent years, the state legislature removed second-degree robbery, the act of taking one’s property without bodily injury, from the list of offenses included in the three strikes law. Since one of Butler’s strikes was punishable by second-degree robbery, he deserved to be outraged last year.
By then, Butler had spent nearly 17 cumulative years behind bars. He He had given up drugs, joined the Black Prisoners Caucus, signed up for educational classes available to him, and was beginning to allow himself to look forward to a future outside prison. When he learned that he deserved a new punishment, he thought he had a good chance of going home soon.
“I’m not a bad person anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s no reason to put me off.”
But when the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s office filed a summary of his sentence last year, it asked Butler to serve a sentence of 62 to 72 years — a real-life sentence.
Butler, who is black, was convicted in Spokane County, which is 2% black. Her case falls under the jurisdiction of Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell, who is married to a woman who has publicly described herself as a “proud white nationalist.” Last month, Butler’s attorney asked Superior Court Judge Julie McKay to remove Haskell’s office from the case, citing concerns that Butler’s race would lead to more harsh treatment. McKay is expected to announce his decision at Wednesday’s hearing.
Haskell, who is up for re-election This year, declined to comment for this story. But Butler’s handling of the case shows how prosecutors can use their broad discretionary power to effectively pursue well-intentioned criminal justice reforms.
Haskell’s office arrived at Butler’s new, near-lifetime sentence by choosing six firearm enhancements, each of which carries a sentence of several years in prison on top of the original sentence of 32 to 42 years. If Haskell gets his way, Butler, an intended beneficiary of the Three Strikes Reform Bill, will still die in prison.
“What’s the point of me going through all this? Take my life sentence and give me another life sentence?”
— Thomas Butler
In 2000, just after his 17th birthday, Butler was convicted of second-degree robbery and spent several months in prison. His second strike happened in 2002, when he robbed a bank and was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison. During that time, “I kind of sat around the prison, hanging out, becoming a worse person,” Butler said. Shortly after his release from prison, Butler attempted to rob a house he believed contained drugs, only to be shot in the arm and spine by a man he had robbed. had tried. As a result of the shooting, Butler had to have surgery on his back and his kidney removed, and continued to experience partial paralysis in his left leg.
When Butler woke up in the hospital after a robbery attempt, he was facing his third strike.
Haskell, who also served as deputy prosecuting attorney at Butler’s trial, offered him a reduced sentence if he agreed to plead guilty, but Butler went to trial and was convicted. In addition to the life without parole sentence mandated by the law of three assaults, he received several gun-related sentence enhancements.
“After I lost the case, I was very disappointed. I went back to jail angry, scared and frustrated,” Butler said. With nothing to look forward or work on, Butler rushed into the fight and He looked for drugs, he said. Eight years later, something changed.
“I found God. I found hope. I found purpose. I found value,” Butler said. “It changed my perspective. It was a paradigm shift,” he said.
“Now I am just trying to make myself a better person and better the people around me. Hopefully, one day they will open these doors,” Butler said. “And if not, at the end of the day Well, it’s better than just living a hopeless life.”
In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strike law after voters overwhelmingly approved the one-ballot initiative. In later years, as politicians won elections through racist fears about so-called “super-predator” youth, Washington state lawmakers called for “persistent criminals” and compulsory life without parole sentences after two attacks in some cases. expanded the definition.
Around this time, Washington voters approved “punishment enhancements” — facing additional years of prison sentences — for people who commit felonies by being armed. Because enhancements are provided continuously, some individuals spend more time in prison for the enhancement than for the underlying crime. According to Seattle-based news outlet Publicola, about one-third of people in Washington state prisons who have multiple weapon enhancements are black.
There is no evidence that three strike laws or weapons escalation prevent crime or improve public safety. Nevertheless, these laws remain largely intact. In 2019, state lawmakers left second-degree robbery as a strike, a modest reform effort that dropped highly mandated sentences for other crimes. It took two more years MPs to make that change retroactiveMade about 114 people able to protest.
After the three strikes reform bill was retroactive, Butler was transferred from the state prison to the Spokane County Jail to await outrage. His lawyer, Stephen Graham, sought a new base sentence of 20 years, as well as 5 years for aggravated weapons, arguing that the prosecution’s request for a real-life sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for crimes. formed in which no victim was killed or seriously injured.
While Butler was waiting for the displeasure, then Inland published a detailed investigation In the racist online presence of Haskell’s wife. Inlander found Leslie Anne Haskell’s accounts on Facebook and Gab — a social media site popular among white nationalists — where she made and posted hateful screech against black people and transgender people, and about attacks on white people. I made false claims.
She described Black Lives Matter activists as “true terrorists in America”, suggesting that all transgender people are “mentally ill”, giving MSNBC’s Joy Reid the correct definition of the word “n****r”. called and described himself. A “proud, white nationalist (not a supremacist).” She often interacted with white nationalist figure Nick Fuentes and claimed, “Our race is dying, we need to make more white kids.” She described her husband, the “spo co-prosecutor” as “the last line of conservative armor that the county has”.
Asked to comment on his wife’s posts, Haskell told Inlander that his wife was “a strong-willed man who will speak his mind” and claimed that his views and beliefs had no bearing on his actions as prosecutor. had no effect. “Summarised by the Supreme Court of the United States, ‘crimes by association’ is “one of the most abhorrent institutions in history,” Haskell continued.
In May, Butler’s attorney Graham asked the court to disqualify Haskell’s office from working on Butler’s case, citing his wife’s comments. Graham also noted that Haskell had disproportionately sought to increase weapons against black people at the time of Butler’s three attacks, between 2008 and 2009.
“The events have undermined the public’s confidence in our court system,” Graham wrote in a court filing. “Mr. Butler and his family deserve the assurance that Mr. Butler is being judged only by his actions, without being treated a certain way because of the color of his skin.”
McKay is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to sack Haskell’s office from the case. If she allows him to stay on the case, she may also decide on Butler’s new sentence. Butler awaits his fate from the county jail, where he is confined in his cell 22 to 24 hours a day.
“What’s the point of me going through all this? Take my life sentence and give me another life sentence?” Butler said. “I could stay where I was and you guys could file the paperwork and change the language on my verdict and sentence.”
“Instead, you bring me across the state, put me in the county jail, completely extoll my current circumstances and then say to me, ‘Well, that little hope you had, screw it up. Do, we are going to give you 62 years and you are still going to die in jail.'”