Since he won election in 2007, nobody has challenged King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg for his office.
Daron Morris, a public defender, says he can do a better job than Satterberg leading the nonpartisan prosecutor’s office, which has a budget of $141 million and a staff of 479, including 244 attorneys. His campaign, first reported by Crosscut, will take aim at what he sees as an overly-punitive culture.
"There is a model of leadership and promotion in the prosecutor's office where being zealous and being tough on crime and really nailing the bad guys is what you need to show to advance,” Morris, a Democrat, said during an interview Tuesday at Tougo Coffee Co in Central District. He believes enacting his vision for the office could require a shakeup in management, not just a switch at the top.
"There may very likely need to be leadership changes,” Morris said.
Satterberg welcomes the competition. “It's an opportunity, not just to respond to criticisms from somebody who doesn't have this responsibility, but to really talk about some of the things we've done here,” he said in a phone interview. "When you look at the King County Prosecutor's Office, it is recognized as a national model for innovation and reform."
Satterberg most recently ran in 2014 as a Republican in an uncontested race, but says he stopped identifying with any party before the office became non-partisan last year.
Morris, a 45-year-old Democrat, studied law at New York University. He gravitated toward criminal defense after becoming dismayed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's harsh crackdown on crime, which emphasized broken windows policing and disproportionately affected black and brown New Yorkers.
After two years working for the city’s Legal Aid Society, Morris said he could no longer afford to live in the city. He took a year off to travel before moving to Seattle with his wife in 2001. He’s mostly served as a King County public defender since then, with stints working in the mental health and felony units.
All that makes him an unusual fit for the boss of King County’s prosecuting attorneys office, which currently comes with a salary of about $200,000. But Morris said it’s time for a change.
He claims Satterberg’s office too often pressures defendants to take plea bargains, wherein they accept guilty convictions for lesser charges rather than going to trial, where their cases would be argued before a jury. About 95 percent of cases in King County get resolved before trial, according to a 2015 review of plea rates across the state by The Columbian.
“There might be a percentage of those cases where people really made good voluntary decisions that they would just resolve their cases,” Morris said. "But a lot of those cases reflects coercion and threats and that's not okay."
In an interview, Satterberg said his plea rates are in line with other large American cities. A 2012 report from the New York Times showed that about 95 percent of federal criminal cases and 94 percent of state-level cases end in guilty pleas. "There is nothing unusual to King County in our system,” he said.
Asked whether plea deals would decline if he were elected, Morris would not say. "I don't know,” he said. "We'll have to see. What I'm saying is that I will not coerce these out of people by threats that risk wrongful convictions or are objectively coercive."
On one of the most contentious issues in America these days—accountability for police officers who fatally shoot civilians—Morris, like Satterberg, supports recent statewide and King County reform efforts. But he says Satterberg made the wrong call by not prosecuting the officer who killed John T. Williams, a native woodcarver whose death eventually led to the Seattle Police Department’s federal consent decree.
"That case should have gone to the jury and it that created a real fracture in our community when that case did not go to the jury,” he said.
When asked whether he regrets his decision not to prosecute Officer Ian Birk, Satterberg did not answer directly, but pointed to a legal standard that makes Washington the most difficult state in the country to prosecute officers who kill. An initiative that will likely appear on ballots in November would lower that standard.
Regarding another high-profile fatal police shooting in which Satterberg did not file charges—that of Che Taylor—Morris said he does not have enough information to say whether he would’ve done the same.
Morris opposes the county's ongoing construction of a new juvenile detention facility, an issue that has become the focal point for one of the most active protest movements in recent Seattle history. He stressed that the new facility will have more than 100 beds and that the average daily population at the current youth jail is much lower.
Noting that a small number of minors commit serious violent crimes, like murder and rape, he added, "We can't build the a secure jail facility around the worst case scenario. We have to meet each kid where they're at.” Satterberg supports the new facility.
Morris criticized Satterberg for accepting $140,000 worth of grant money from Demand Abolition, an anti-prostitution organization that advocates for more prosecutions of men who purchase sex. As former Stranger staff writer Sydney Brownstone reported in March, Satterberg’s office wrote in its grant application that it would seek to increase arrest of sex buyers by 50 percent.
Although Morris “doesn’t have any sympathy” for johns, he characterized the grant as taking “special interest money.” He believes Demand Abolition’s approach ignores the input of sex workers.
“Saying to a woman, 'I'm deciding that you can never be free. I'm deciding that you can never be un-coerced in sex work,’ that’s just not the right approach,” he said.
Morris said Satterberg also lags “behind other social justice voices in our community” when it comes to addressing past marijuana convictions in a state where the drug is now legal. Seattle recently moved to vacate convictions for locals dinged for pot possession, and Morris said King County should do the same. He claims Satterberg has ignored people who have volunteered to help his office identify such cases.
Satterberg countered that he plans to launch an effort with the Department of Public Defense to vacate marijuana charges, as well as convictions for harder drugs like cocaine in special cases. He says he’ll be asking for money to implement the effort in his next budget request.
Morris repeatedly mentioned Satterberg’s support of a 2007 legislative move to increase the penalty for car theft from 12 months to 17 to 22 months, which the prosecutor highlights on his campaign website. The change also decreased the number of car theft convictions it takes to send someone to prison from 12 to three.
"Car theft is a serious problem, but it's not as serious as murder, rape or violence,” Morris said. He pointed to research showing that sentence length is not an effective deterrence for crime. "I mean the thing that stops car theft is neighborhood watch. It's not whether you send someone to prison for one, two, three, four or give years, whether you triple the penalties.”
Satterberg pointed out that car thefts went down after the penalties increased.
"I think we should look at the overall science, not one correlation in time,” Morris wrote in a follow-up email.
Satterberg, who has worked in the prosecutor’s office for 33 years, would be unelectable in parts of the country that value tough-on-crime swagger above all else The prosecutor wrote an op-ed against the death penalty, helped launch a unit helping families remove guns from people in crisis and has been a partner in the expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pre-booking program through King County.
Morris said the county can do more. "We are a national leader and if we're going to be a national leader we can't just sort of occupy a little bit of incremental progressive space."
This post has been updated to reflect that the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is nonpartisan. It has also been corrected to reflect that Dan Satterberg no longer identifies as a Republican.