Dozens of violent criminals that don’t make headlines are sentenced weekly in King County
Feel like King County and Seattle are soft on crime? There’s much more to the story, especially when you start talking about crimes committed by someone with significant behavioral issues or involuntary treatment — and places like Western State Hospital or agencies like the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHA) are part of the equation.
But, with jury trials back on the calendar after being on hold for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, King County prosecutors are working their way through the massive backlog of cases.
In fact, Casey McNerthney with the prosecutor’s office says, on average, they have about 60 or so cases where a conviction has been secured that go to a superior court judge for sentencing each week.
KIRO Radio will be highlighting some of those sentences every week.
This past week, there were about 60 cases on the sentencing calendar, including two related to hate crimes or attempted hate crimes, and two random attacks that you’ve likely never heard of because often they don’t make headlines, even though they probably should.
“On Friday, we had a guy, Malachi Robertson, who was accused of a hate crime … who attacked Metro drivers and pleaded guilty to attacking one of them, and also was convicted in a separate residential burglary that was tied in the sentencing on Friday,” McNerthney said. “It was a pretty disturbing case. He was accused of screaming the n-word and using racially charged language and swearing at them. He spit on one of the drivers and hit one in the face, according to police, and he admitted to threatening one of the drivers who’s Black just because of his race.”
Robertson pleaded guilty to maliciously and intentionally threatening one of the drivers, who is Black, based on his perception of the driver’s race. During the same time period as the hate crime, Robertson also engaged in a residential burglary. Robertson has a criminal history, but these felony cases were the first of his ever referred to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which asked for a 17-month sentence.
A second case that went to sentencing Friday involved a man who attacked a security guard and later pleaded guilty to an attempted hate crime.
“This guy — David Lyle Morton — he admitted that when he was being escorted out of Swedish Hospital in Ballard after being medically cleared, he admitted to attacking an Asian-American security guard, using anti-Asian slurs, and charging at him after the security guard had tried to de-escalate the situation,” McNerthney said.
Lyle Morton pleaded guilty to an attempted hate crime, and he’s already been in jail since June. He was sentenced to have an alcohol and substance evaluation and a mental health evaluation.
“Substance abuse and mental health is often a common thing that we see with people who commit hate crimes, but it’s also not an excuse to. So in this case, we thought it was important for them to be a part of the sentence. He’s got to get those evaluations within 60 days. And so he had a suspended sentence because of the time that he’d already spent in jail,” McNerthney explained.
Two other people sentenced in the Friday sentencings were convicted on assault charges for random attacks the prosecutor’s office says have, sadly, become common place in the region.
In one case, a man named David Skiffington stabbed another man outside of a Ballard church when he was eating breakfast, then took off and fled toward Ballard Commons Park before eventually being arrested. On Friday, Skiffington was sentenced to 43 months for second-degree assault for that attack.
He notes that there are cases like this “all the time” that don’t make headlines.
“We’ve heard a lot of the concerns from folks in Ballard about what’s happening, what’s being done. That, understandably, is a case that didn’t make news because, unfortunately, some of these cases are kind of routine, but it’s also routine for the prosecutor’s office to get convictions in these cases and to take them to court,” McNerthney recalled.
The final case KIRO Radio is highlighting from last week involved an attack on a Washington State Ferries worker.
In April, David Catalano walked up to a woman at Coleman Dock who was working for Washington State Ferries and, without provocation or warning, lifted a butane torch toward her face and sprayed her with lighter fluid, causing severe pain, according to court records. Catalano was also being sentenced Friday for a separate assault case for an incident in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.
“In that case, he was darting in and out of traffic with a gas can when he was approached by two police officers after trying to take the side mirror off a car,” McNerthney said. “The officers, believing he was a danger to himself and others, tried to stop him before Catalano bit two of the officers.”
Catalano pleaded guilty and was being sentenced on third-degree assault in both cases. These were the first felony cases he had that were referred to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“In one of those cases he was given three months,” McNerthney recalled.
But McNerthney says it’s important to know that’s based on the sentencing guidelines set by the state.
“The state says, for somebody with that kind of conviction, with that kind of criminal history, you get three, eight months in jail, which people might say that’s not enough when you randomly attack somebody like that,” he said. “But that’s the best we could do. And we hope that people are least reassured that we did that and we got the conviction. We think that is the best kind of justice that we can get within the guidelines we have from the state.”
Those are calculated based on sentencing guidelines the Legislature creates and which set ranges of time a judge can sentence someone to based on their offender score, a number calculated by — among other things — a person’s criminal history.
“All the sentences that we see are influenced by somebody’s previous criminal history. If you’re a first time offender, it’s a lot different than if you have a rap sheet with five felonies or 10 felonies,” he said.
On any Friday, McNerthney says people can go to the courtrooms in the downtown courthouse or in Kent at the Justice Center and see these kind of sentences.
“It might be reassuring to know that we’re in the courtrooms getting those sentences,” he said.
Because not all cases do end up in the courtroom, or even charged.
“We don’t have the option to go and say, you know what, let’s just give it a shot like a roulette wheel and see what we get on this one. We can’t ethically do that. We can only bring a case when we believe we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Every day, we file around 25 to 35 cases, both in Seattle and in Kent. One thing that we’re trying to do weekly is do a summary … of each of the cases that we charge because there is a perception that we are light on folks,” McNerthney said, adding that’s just not the case.
That perception has definitely been made worse by the pandemic, given the months of jury trials on hold and the massive backlog of cases it created. This is not just an issue in King County either, it’s a statewide and nationwide issue, according to McNerthney, but it is improving locally.
“The backlog has gotten better, but we’re still in the red,” he said. “We really, in every county across the nation, whether you lean blue or lean red, it is something about the pandemic and not being able to put a jury in a jury box that really slowed things down. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to ignore repeat criminals, it doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore violent crime. We’re going to be thoughtful about it. We’re going to prioritize the people who are repeat offenders and who are violent, but we were doing that before the pandemic too.”