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Matt Markovich: Pete Holmes’ claim about Judge McKenna ‘untrue’

The King County Courthouse. (penjelly, Flickr)

In an open letter to Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Ed McKenna on Wednesday, City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County Department of Public Defenders Director Anita Khandelwal strongly speculated that the judge had invited KOMO 4 reporter Matt Markovich to a sentencing on Jan. 10 — but Markovich called this a “laughable claim.”

“I am not in cahoots with that judge; he did not invite us into that courtroom,” he told the Dori Monson Show.

The letter — which asked Judge McKenna to step down from the position of presiding judge — alleged that, by inviting a member of the public (Safe Seattle’s Jennifer Coats) and likely a member of the media (Markovich) to the courtroom, McKenna had created a theatrical “premeditated display” for observers. The letter also points out that McKenna ordered the offender, Francisco Calderon, to appear at the sentencing, and also imposed a higher sentence than recommended by the city attorney’s office, adding to the display.

RELATED: Has Seattle Judge Ed McKenna stepped out of line? 

McKenna told KIRO Radio on Wednesday that Holmes’ and Khandelwal’s letter was released to the media before he received it, and that he needed adequate time to consider a thoughtful response.

Coats had previously told KIRO Radio that Judge McKenna had invited her to observe a court case. She was well within her rights as a citizen to attend the Jan. 10 sentencing.

(UPDATE: Coats later clarified to KIRO that the invitation was not a personal, individual invitation to any specific date, hearing, or case. It was a broad invitation made by McKenna to the entire audience at a public meeting.)

Markovich, however, said he did not attend the sentencing at McKenna’s invitation. He was there because he was working on a story about Seattle’s habitual offenders and had received a tip about the hearing from a source unrelated to the court.

“What Pete Holmes is asserting is absolutely untrue,” Markovich said.

Markovich’s story aired on KOMO 4 about a month later, just after a report of Seattle’s 100 prolific offenders, commissioned by neighborhood districts and the city’s tourism industry, was released. According to the study, 100 prolific offenders are responsible for 3,500 crimes committed in Seattle — and rather than being put behind bars for extended periods of time, these offenders keep getting released onto the streets.

“What’s finally happening is we’re starting to show what happens in these court cases,” Markovich said.

With more than 70 previous convictions over the course of four decades, including 13 assaults, Calderon was an ideal candidate for Markovich’s story. On the day in question, Calderon was being sentenced for an assault that was apparently random — punching a man in the face in Capitol Hill.

In a previous sentencing hearing for Calderon a few weeks earlier, at which the offender had pleaded guilty, Holmes’ office recommended probation along with drug and mental health treatment. Judge McKenna had asked the city attorney to consider reevaluating the sentence, predicting that Calderon would re-offend.

But at the Jan. 10 sentencing, the city attorney’s office had not changed its recommendation. McKenna instead sentenced Calderon to the maximum sentence of 364 days in jail.

Because of time already served and good behavior, Calderon likely will be released late this spring, Markovich said.

The letter from Holmes and Khandelwal also chided McKenna for recommending higher sentences for criminals to the city attorney’s office and to city prosecutors.

“It is improper for you to attempt to control the City’s recommendation,” the letter stated. “This pattern and practice of suggesting otherwise erodes confidence in the judiciary generally and undercuts any belief in your impartiality.”

Holmes and Khandelwal also found fault with McKenna for statements he made at a Downtown Seattle Association City Maker breakfast on April 19, moderated by KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

McKenna told Markovich in an interview that the city attorney’s office and public defenders department are using a practice called pretrial diversion, in which sentences are pre-decided so that some cases never even get to court. Markovich said that KOMO 4 will be researching this more in-depth.

“Judge McKenna never gets to decide what the proper punishment should be, and that’s what he says is going on a lot in Seattle,” Markovich said.

Markovich and “Seattle is Dying”

KOMO 4 has become somewhat of a household name after the release of its “Seattle is Dying” special last month. The piece, which chronicles the rise of homelessness, crime, and drug addiction in the city, has drawn much attention and even a counter-message by county leaders.

Markovich said he has met off-the-record to discuss the documentary with local leaders such as Mayor Jenny Durkan, Holmes, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

“They’re very skeptical … I can tell you that they’re not happy about it,” he said.

It looks as though leadership may be taking action as a result of the documentary, however. Markovich said that in recent weeks, Durkan has established work groups to study some of Seattle’s issues. Markovich does not know for certain if this has to do with “Seattle is Dying,” but observed that the timing would be quite a coincidence if not.

He also said that Seattle police officers have informed him that changes are being made in how the Navigation Team, the RV Remediation Team, and police deal with habitual offenders and people who choose to live on the streets.

“[Seattle leaders] have seen the impact of the documentary, they have personally received hundreds of emails, mostly angry emails, about what’s happening in Seattle … It seems like city hall has now heard that and they’re trying to do something about it,” Markovich said. “I know that there are some efforts being made, except that the city is not talking about those efforts — in fact, they’re trying to keep it quiet from us. I don’t know why.”

The City of Seattle’s letter stated that Jennifer Coats was a member of Speak Out Seattle. She is not a member. The city later corrected this statement and apologized to Speak Out Seattle. An earlier version of this story identified Coats as a member of Speak Out Seattle based on the city’s letter. KIRO Radio/MyNorthwest regrets this error and strives for accuracy in all matters.

 

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