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Washington DOC Hit with almost $50 Million in Verdicts and Settlements in Parole Victim Suits

In a four-month period between September, 2000 and January, 2001, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) was hit with separate jury verdicts for $22.4 and $15 million and settled two additional cases for $8.8 million. All four lawsuits stem from the DOC's negligent supervision of parolees in its care. The $22.4 million verdict is the largest verdict against the state in Washington history. Together, these verdicts constitute the flip side of the states "get tough on crime" posturing. Namely, that juries might take it seriously and hold the state accountable.

$22.4 Million Verdict in Joyce Case

On September 1, 2000, a Pierce county jury in Tacoma awarded $22.4 million to the surviving family members of Paula Joyce. On August 8, 1997, Valdez Stewart ran a red light in a stolen SUV and hit Joyce's car, killing her instantly. At the time of the accident Stewart was community supervision (what parole is called in Washington) for third degree assault. During the accident Stewart was driving a stolen SUV, smoking marijuana and should have been in jail for over 100 supervision violations, including previous car thefts, leaving the county without permission, etc. Stewart was also diagnosed with severe psychosis and bipolar disorder but aside from a few emergency psychiatric hospitalizations in Seattle, he never received any treatment for his mental illness.

The jury found the DOC negligent in its supervision of Stewart, relying on evidence by Joyce's estate that as Stewart became more mentally unstable and dangerous, the DOC decreased his supervision.

The jury awarded $4.5 million to each of Joyce's four children and $3.6 million to her husband Stephen and $793,000 to her estate. The verdict against the state is the largest in Washington history. Jack Connelly, the Joyce family's attorney, said: "The DOC has been told `you've got to start supervising these people... Hopefully a verdict like this will make the DOC pay attention. Paula Joyce never should have died." Connelly practices with the Tacoma law firm of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson and Daheim [The firm also represents PLN in censorship litigation against the Washington DOC.] See: Joyce v. State of Washington, Pierce County Superior Court No. 992101796.

Stewart was convicted of second-degree murder in Joyce's death and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

$15 Million Verdict in Couch Murder

On November 3, 2000, another Pierce county jury found the jury liable for negligent supervision and awarded $15 million to the estate of Yoshiko Couch. Cecil Davis was on community supervision for 1990 and 1992 convictions involving an ice pick attack on a couple and car theft. On January 25, 1997, Davis broke into the Tacoma home of Yoshiko and Richard Couch. Davis raped Yoshiko, 65, several times then suffocated her with bathroom solvents. Richard, her disabled husband, witnessed the attack but was unable to intervene due to his disability. Richard died nine months later. Davis was convicted of Yoshiko's murder and rape and sentenced to death. He currently awaits execution.

The Couch family filed suit alleging the DOC negligently supervised Davis. At the time of the attack, Davis was on "financial monitoring status" on community placement. Despite DOC reports stating that he was in and out of jail on other crimes, being actively investigated by police for murder, assault and attempted murder in other incidents, had a personality disorder, abused drugs and was increasingly violent; the DOC only attempted to collect fines from Davis.

Jack Connelly also represented the plaintiffs in this suit. The jury awarded $1 million to each of Yoshiko's four children $5 million to Richard Couch's estate and $6 million to Yoshiko's estate. Connelly told the media that the DOC is in denial. "They have a system that does not supervise violent offenders. They've had two separate juries say that something is wrong with the system. But all they do is deny, deny, deny and that is not going to help the citizens of this state."

Kathy Thurmond, a juror on the case, said she hoped the verdict would improve the DOC. The jury clearly believed that if the DOC had been supervising Davis he would not have killed Couch.

Connelly criticized the Washington attorney general's office for repeatedly refusing settlement offers that would have saved the state millions. "Clearly they're not doing a very good job of risk management. They are not analyzing their cases, and I think that is yet another tragedy to these events," Connelly said. The state of Washington is notorious for refusing to settle cases it later goes on to spectacularly lose. In April, 2000, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services was found liable for $17 million in the sexual abuse of three developmentally disabled men in-group homes. The attorney general's office had refused to settle the case for $7 million. The plaintiffs in that case were also represented by Connelly's firm. The attorney general's office then failed to file a notice of appeal and had to pay the entire verdict, plus over a million dollars in interest. The state's underlying attitude is best summed up by senior assistant attorney general John Blonein who once told a pro se prisoner litigant during fruitless settlement discussions "It's only money, and other people's money at that." See: Couch v. Washington DOC, Pierce County Superior court case No. 992119024.

$8.8 Million Settlement in Puckett Cases

Perhaps finally realizing that it wasn't faring well before juries, on January 17, 2001, the Washington DOC announced it was paying $8.8 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the victims of Gary Wayne Puckett. Puckett was originally convicted in 1980 of raping and robbing an 86-year-old woman. He was paroled in 1987, had his parole revoked and was released again in 1995. In 1997 Puckett raped and killed Alice Underdahl of Washington and slashed the throat of Julienne Schultz in North Dakota during a rape attempt. When confronted by North Dakota police Puckett committed suicide. Schultz survived the attack but can barely talk due to her throat injuries.

Schultz and Underdahl's estate sued the state of Washington claiming the DOC had negligently supervised Puckett. DOC parole officers did not notice that Puckett had failed to register as a sex offender and had consistently been evaluated as dangerous and was drinking and using illegal drugs.

To settle the suit, the state argreed to pay Schultz and Underdahl's husband and daughter $4.4 million each. Seattle attorneys Paul Whelan and Kevin Coluccio represented the plaintiffs. Coluccio noted: "It was our contention that there was a complete failure to supervise." In a prepared statement, the Washington DOC said "The state determined that settlement of $4.4 million each was fiscally prudent." Especially in light of having just been hammered on this issue by the juries in the Joyce and Couch cases. See: Schultz, Underdahl v. Wasington DOC, King County Superior Court Case No. 99-2-20537-5-KNT.

Other Recent Settlements

In February, 2001, the DOC paid $670,000 to an unidentified 25-year-old developmentally disabled woman who was raped by parole Daniel Martineau in 1996. Martineau had repeatedly violated judicial no contact orders and had not been supervised by his parole officer. Martineau, a convicted rapist, should not have been allowed to participate in Association for Retarded Citizen's activities, which is where he met the victim, according to the lawsuit.

On March 16, 2001, the DOC announced it was paying $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit involving the shooting deaths of Tacoma teens Willie Gilmore Jr. and Keyno McGhee. They were killed by Warrick Washington, a mentally ill parolee with a gun fascination who refused to take his medications and drank alcohol. Washington's parole officer, Jim McGinnis, ignored calls from Washington's father that his son was becoming paranoid. McGinnis found ammunition in Washington's possession less than a week before the killings and did nothing. Felons are barred by state and federal law from possessing ammunition.

Still in Denial?

In all three cases the DOC vigorously defended its actions and those of its employees. In Taggart v. State, 822 P.2d 243 (Wash. 1982) the Washington supreme court held that state parole officers could be held liable for failing to protect others from the reasonably foreseeable acts resulting from the dangerous propensities of parolees. In 1984 the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) went into effect, which eliminated parole, and with it the state's liability for crimes committed by ex prisoners. By 1990 however, Washington prisoners were being sentenced to "community supervision" for periods of 1 to 3 years after serving their determinate sentences. In 1995 the legislature enacted a new statutory scheme that creates the fiction, bought by the courts, see In Re Crowder, 97 Wa.App. 598 (Wa. App. Div. I 1999), that SRA sentenced prisoners who committed crimes after 1995 are "prisoners" whether they are in prison or on "community placement" with the sentence not being discharged until every last day has been completed. By successfully arguing there is no difference if the person is in prison or on "community placement" outside of prison the state has effectively ensured its liability for the criminal acts committed by its wards.

The state attorney generals' office has eagerly and successfully defended this concept to ensure an expanding net of state control over those unfortunate enough to become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. As the state is learning, with control comes responsibility and liability. Washington currently has 55,000 people on "community supervision." By state law, these individuals are considered "inmates". This compares to around 15,000 people confined in Washington prisons.

What the above cases show is that the DOC is incapable, and unwilling, to protect public safety. Having created a vast, repressive framework to keep tens of thousands of citizens under state surveillance for years, it is not surprising that juries are taking the state at its word and expecting them to actually do something to maintain a semblance of order.

As soon as the $22.4 million verdict in Joyce was announced, the Washington DOC and the governor's office went into full spin control mode. Governor Gary Locke issued a statement announcing the verdict would be appealed and "If the state were held responsible for any and all actions by the released offender, then it must be determined that community supervision is not viable for state or local government .... Imposing liabity for his [Stewart's] involvement in an auto accident extends public liability too far."

Locke's press secretary, Dana Middleton, questioned whether the state can adequately monitor all 55,000 people on community supervision. Jack Connelly stated: "The response is `If you're not even going to try to do your job, then don't put these guys on community supervision. Put them in jail." Which raises the question of whether Washington is willing to increase its prison population four fold in the near future, having increased it almost five fold in the past 25 years.

In the October, 2000, issue of The Communique, the DOC's in house newsletter, both Governor Locke and DOC boss Joe Lehman had statements decreying the Joyce verdict and hoping that an appeals court "will decline to extend liability of correctional officials this far." They framed the issue as one where DOC staff could not predict that Stewart would be involved in a car accident. Which was not the basis for their liability.

In the Couch case, assistant attorney general Steven Meeks, who tried the case, said the defense was "hopeless" after the trial judge held that the DOC owed a duty to supervise Davis and to control or deter his criminal behavior. Meeks said "We were denied the ability to establish comparative fault and there was insufficient evidence to show proximate cause." The state is appealing that verdict as well. The verdicts accrue 12% interest annually while the state appeals.

In recent years crime victim litigation has become more common. Typically judgments against indigent criminals are worthless as they will rarely if ever be paid. However, crime victim litigation against local, state and federal agencies that do not adequately supervise parolees and probationers is a fertile ground for litigation as such verdicts can be paid. Not surprisingly, most "victim advocates" employed by prosecutors neglect to tell crime victims, especially victims of violent crimes, that they may have a cause of action against government agencies who are negligent in their parole and probation supervision. Which begs the question of whose interests are being served by these "advocates."

PLN recently expanded the scope of its legal coverage to include this type of victim litigation because it underscores the point that the current system of mass imprisonment with its goal of "tail'm, nail'm and jail'm" does little to meet the needs of prisoners and even less to enhance or protect public safety. If prisoners are provided with meaningful work, mental health and social services upon release from captivity public safety is enhanced. That both Stewart and Davis had serious mental health problems that went unaddressed by the DOC's "community corrections officers" illustrates the punitive and police nature of the parole system. Had these men received mental health treatment there is a good chance that Yoshiko Couch and Paula Joyce would still be alive today. Ironically, no one claims that the parole officers had any duty or obligation to secure mental health treatment for Davis and Stewart. Holding the state liable for recidivism may well start people questioning why meager to begin with prison rehabilitation programs have been largely eliminated from Washington prisons.

Sources: Tacoma News Tribune, The Communique, Seattle Times, National Law Journal

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Related legal cases

Schultz, Underdahl v. Washington DOC

Joyce v. State of Washington

Couch v. Washington DOC