UPDATE: June 15, 2022 ― At the hearing Wednesday, Judge Julie McKay denied Thomas Butler’s request to remove prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office from the case. She resentenced Butler to 30 years — 336 months for the weapons enhancements and 24 months for the base sentence — far below the 62 to 72 years prosecutors had requested.
Thomas Butler thought he might finally get the chance to go home.
In 2010, when Butler was 26, he was sentenced to life without parole in prison under Washington’s persistent offender statute, better known as “three strikes.” Passed by voters during the height of the “tough-on-crime” hysteria of the 1990s, the three strikes law requires mandatory life sentences for people repeatedly convicted of certain crimes, including robbery, assault and homicide.
Amid the 2020 nationwide protests over racism in policing and incarceration, Washington’s three strikes law was an obvious target for reform. It has resulted in life without parole sentences for many people, including Butler, whose crimes did not result in death or long-term physical injury for the victims. Although Black people represent just 4% of the state’s population, they account for 38% of people sentenced under three strikes.
In recent years, the state legislature removed robbery in the second degree, the act of taking someone’s property without causing bodily injury, from the list of crimes included in the three strikes law. Because one of Butler’s strikes was a second-degree robbery conviction, he became eligible for resentencing last year.
By then, Butler had spent about 17 cumulative years behind bars. He had quit drugs, joined the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, signed up for the educational classes available to him, and started allowing himself to hope for a future outside of prison. When he found out he was eligible for a new sentence, he thought he had a good chance of going home soon.
“I’m not a bad person anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s no reason to keep me locked up.”
But when the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed its sentencing brief last year, it asked for Butler to be resentenced to 62 to 72 years — a de facto life sentence.
Butler, who is Black, was convicted in Spokane County, which is 2% Black. His case falls under the jurisdiction of Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell, who is married to a woman who has publicly described herself as a “proud white nationalist.” Last month, Butler’s lawyer asked Superior Court Judge Julie McKay to remove Haskell’s office from the case, citing concerns that Butler would be treated more harshly because of his race. McKay is expected to announce her decision at a Wednesday hearing.
Haskell, who is up for reelection this year, declined to comment for this story. But his handling of Butler’s case shows how prosecutors can use their broad discretionary power to effectively gut well-intentioned criminal justice reforms.
Haskell’s office arrived at Butler’s new, near-life sentence by choosing to stack six firearm enhancements, each of which carries several years in prison, on top of a base sentence of 32 to 42 years. If Haskell gets his way, Butler, an intended beneficiary of the three strikes reform bill, will likely still die in prison.
“What’s the point of making me go through all this? Take my life sentence and give me another life sentence?”
In 2000, just after his 17th birthday, Butler was convicted of second-degree robbery and spent several months in jail. His second strike was in 2002, when he robbed a bank and was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison. During that time, “I kind of just sat around the prison, hanging out, becoming a worse person,” Butler said. Shortly after he got out of prison, Butler attempted to rob a home that he believed had drugs inside, only to get shot in the arm and the spine by one of the people he tried to rob. As a result of the shooting, Butler had to have surgery on his back and have his kidney removed, and continues to experience partial paralysis in his left leg.
When Butler woke up in the hospital after the attempted robbery, he was facing his third strike.
Haskell, who also worked on Butler’s case at trial as a deputy prosecuting attorney, offered him a lesser sentence if he agreed to plead guilty, but Butler went to trial and was convicted. In addition to the life without parole sentence mandated by the three strikes law, he received several gun-related sentencing enhancements.
“After I lost the trial, I was pretty hopeless. I went back to prison just angry, scared and hopeless,” Butler said. With nothing to look forward to or work toward, Butler wound up getting in fights and seeking out drugs, he said. After eight years, something changed.
“I found God. I found hope. I found purpose. I found value,” Butler said. “It changed my perspective. It was a paradigm shift,” he said.
“Now I’m just trying to make myself a better person and make the people around me better. Hopefully, one day they’ll open up these doors,” Butler said. “And even if not, at the end of the day, it’s better than just living a hopeless life.”
In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three strikes law after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative. In the following years, as politicians won elections through racist fearmongering about so-called “super-predator” youth, Washington state lawmakers expanded the definition of a “persistent offender” and mandated life without parole sentences after two strikes in certain cases.
Around this time, Washington voters approved “sentencing enhancements” — additional years tacked on to a prison sentence — for people who commit felonies while armed with a weapon. Because enhancements are served consecutively, some individuals end up doing more time in prison for enhancements than for the underlying crime. Nearly one-third of people in Washington state prisons who have multiple weapons enhancements are Black, according to Seattle-based news outlet PubliCola.
There is no evidence that three strikes laws or weapons enhancements deter crime or improve public safety. Still, these laws have remained largely intact. In 2019, state lawmakers dropped second-degree robbery as a strike, a modest reform effort that left in place extreme mandatory sentences for other crimes. It took another two years for lawmakers to make that change retroactive, making about 114 people eligible for resentencing.
After the three strikes reform bill became retroactive, Butler was transferred from state prison to the Spokane County jail to await resentencing. His lawyer, Stephen Graham, asked for a new base sentence of 20 years, plus 5 years for the weapons enhancements, arguing that the prosecutors’ request for a de facto life sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment for crimes in which no victim was killed or seriously injured.
While Butler was awaiting resentencing, the Inlander published a detailed investigation into Haskell’s wife’s racist online presence. The Inlander found Lesley Anne Haskell’s accounts on Facebook and Gab — a social media site popular among white nationalists — where she posted and reposted hateful screeds against Black people and transgender people, and made false claims about white people being under attack.
She described Black Lives Matter activists as “the true terrorists in America,” suggested that all transgender people are “mentally ill,” called MSNBC’s Joy Reid the “true definition of the word ‘n****r’” and described herself as a “proud, white nationalist (NOT supremacist).” She frequently interacted with white nationalist figurehead Nick Fuentes and claimed, “Our race is dying, we need to make more White babies.” She described her husband, “the Spo Co Prosecutor” as “the last line of conservative armor that the County has.”
Asked to comment on his wife’s posts, Haskell told the Inlander that his wife “is a strong-willed person who will speak her mind” and claimed that her thoughts and beliefs had no influence on his actions as a prosecutor. “Succinctly stated by the United States Supreme Court, ‘guilt by association’ is “one of the most odious institutions in history,’” Haskell continued.
In May, Graham, Butler’s lawyer, asked the court to disqualify Haskell’s office from working on Butler’s case, citing his wife’s comments. Graham also noted that Haskell had disproportionately sought stacked weapons enhancements against Black people between 2008 and 2009, around the time of Butler’s three strikes trial.
“The events have undercut the public’s faith in our court system,” Graham wrote in a court filing. “Mr. Butler and his family deserve the assurance that Mr. Butler is being judged by his actions alone, without being treated a certain way due to the color of his skin.”
McKay is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to dismiss Haskell’s office from the case. If she allows him to remain on the case, she may also make a decision about Butler’s new sentence. Butler awaits his fate from county jail, where he spends between 22 and 24 hours a day locked in his cell.
“What’s the point of making me go through all this? Take my life sentence and give me another life sentence?” Butler said. “I could’ve just stayed where I was and you guys could have filed the paperwork and changed the language on my judgment and sentencing.”
“Instead, you bring me all the way across the state, put me in the county jail, totally uproot my current circumstances and then tell me, ‘Well, that little bit of hope that you had, screw that, we’re gonna give you 62 years and you’re still gonna die in prison.’”