Guilty verdict for early-release killer calls attention to Corrections inaction, Padden says

OLYMPIA – A first-degree murder conviction Thursday in Spokane for a killer released early from prison calls attention to the fact that critically important reforms to the state Department of Corrections have not yet been implemented, says Sen. Mike Padden, ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

More than two years after disclosure of the deadliest management failure in Washington history – the early release of some 3,000 violent and dangerous felons — the state prison agency still lacks an adequate process for Corrections employees to express concerns about agency managers without fear of retaliation, said Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

“I’m glad Jeremiah Smith will be receiving an appropriate punishment, and want to recognize the good work of Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and deputy prosecutors Tom Treppiedi and Eugene Cruz in ensuring that Smith spends his life in prison. But the systemic problems remain. Until Corrections employees feel free to speak up about management practices, we risk another disaster. Unfortunately some people in state government appear threatened by that.”

Jeremiah Smith, one of the thousands of prisoners released ahead of schedule by DOC, was convicted Thursday in Spokane County Superior Court of killing 17-year-old Cesar Medina of Moses Lake in a botched 2015 robbery at a Spokane tattoo parlor. Smith had been released from the Washington State Corrections Center in Shelton 12 days before the shooting, and should have remained in prison for another three months. After a bench trial, Smith was convicted on four counts – murder, burglary, assault and unlawful possession of a firearm, all in the first degree. Sentencing is set for July 12. Smith was acquitted on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery and witness tampering. Because of prior felony convictions, the new convictions are considered a “third strike” under state law, and the only sentence available is life without the possibility of parole.

Smith was one of two former inmates who killed when they should have been behind bars. Robert Terrance Jackson, released six months early from the Shelton prison in 2015, killed girlfriend Lindsay Hill in a drunken high-speed smash-up in Bellevue. Jackson was sentenced in 2016 on a third-strike conviction to life without parole.

Like the others who were released ahead of time, Smith and Jackson had received sentence “enhancements” for violent and dangerous crimes. But Department of Corrections computers were programmed incorrectly when a new system came online in 2002, and inmates with that particular enhancement were released an average two months early, some as much as two years. Mid-level Department of Corrections employees learned of the error in 2012, but upper-level agency managers demonstrated a lack of curiosity when notified through ordinary channels. Instead, they put fixes to the software on the back burner for another three years while they pursued ambitious and never-realized computer projects. Nearly half of the releases took place after the agency learned of its mistake. No one thought to calculate sentences with pencil and paper.

The Department of Corrections has never completed an accounting showing precisely how many inmates were released early during the 13-year period and how many were arrested for new crimes when they should have been imprisoned.

Employees could have sounded an alarm if an effective complaint system had been in place, Padden said. He noted that a whistleblower program offered through the State Auditor’s Office proved a dud in part because of Corrections’ penchant for retribution. In an unrelated recent case, a former DOC researcher was demoted and faced other retaliation when she filed a whistleblower complaint regarding a fraudulent grant application submitted by the agency. In settling her lawsuit, state attorneys insisted she be barred from future employment in Corrections. Teri Herold-Prayer told the Senate Law and Justice Committee in 2017, “The message my settlement sent to DOC staff and all state employees is either keep your mouth shut or risk your career for telling the truth.”

An independent ‘ombuds’ office to serve Corrections employees was among several recommendations of a thorough Senate investigation of the affair in 2016. But the Legislature has failed to act. Lawmakers this year created an ombuds program in the Department of Corrections, but for prisoners and their families only – not for Corrections employees. Other recommendations that have not been acted upon include:

  • Requiring the governor’s office to put systems in place to directly monitor the agency’s performance.
  • Improving protection for Corrections whistleblowers.
  • Simplifying Washington’s sentencing code in a way that does not reduce punishment or compromise public safety.
  • Requiring the governor’s office to adopt policies regarding personal relationships between upper-level Corrections managers and the people who supervise them in the governor’s office.
  • Reviewing whether additional actions may be possible against former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, who oversaw the debacle.
  • Stating in law that the agency’s first priority is to protect public safety.

“This was an embarrassment for state government,” Padden said. “It was a systemic failure that started at the top. Blame lies with the agency managers who did nothing and the officials who were supposed to monitor their performance. But the governor’s office, which shares the responsibility, chose to blame mid-level employees and leave it at that.

“Gov. Jay Inslee objected strenuously when the Senate chose to conduct its own investigation. We found much evidence that agency managers and the governor’s office dropped the ball. When we put forward a comprehensive reform bill last year, it overwhelmingly passed the Senate, but it was quashed by the governor’s office in the House on the final day of the session. The governor never did tell us why he objected.

“I can understand the sensitivity, but public safety is at stake. We’ve gotten lip service and half-measures. Today’s conviction for Jeremiah Smith is a demonstration of the deadly consequences of inaction, and a reminder that important reforms have been left undone.”