6-year sentence for molester after life term tossed out

EVERETT — A Snohomish County couple on Monday criticized the state Supreme Court for overturning the life sentence of a man accused of sexually abusing their daughter.

The parents were forced to face Michael Gresham once again in a Snohomish County courtroom as he was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting their child.

Gresham’s life sentence was thrown out in January after the state Supreme Court struck down a new statute that made it easier for prosecutors to introduce evidence about past sex abuse allegations.

A majority of the justices concluded that legislators overstepped their bounds in 2008 when they enacted a law that dictated what kind of evidence jurors could hear in sex cases.

An existing court rule generally bars jurors from hearing about a defendant’s previous criminal convictions.

Snohomish County prosecutors had won a conviction against Gresham in 2008 after jurors heard testimony from the victim of his 1998 King County conviction for second-degree assault with sexual motivation. The girl said she’d been abused by Gresham for years, starting when she was eight and lasting until she was about 12.

A jury convicted Gresham of child rape. He was given a life sentence under the state’s persistent offender law.

Gresham appealed and the state Supreme Court concluded that jurors shouldn’t have been allowed to hear about his prior conviction because the new statute was unconstitutional.

The victim’s father Monday had harsh words for those justices. The man said he believes in the court system, but called the high court’s decision cowardly and criminal.

“The Supreme Court has failed us with this one,” he said.

He wondered how the justices would feel if Gresham, a two-time convicted child molester, moved next door to their grandchildren.

The man then encouraged Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair not to show Gresham leniency. He asked that she sentence him to six years in prison — the high end under the law.

“Please do not fail me …,” he said. “(My daughter) needs you not to fail her.”

Once Gresham’s sentence was overturned, prosecutors weighed whether to retry the case. They unsuccessfully attempted to have his previous conviction admitted under the old rules of evidence.

To resolve the case, prosecutors agreed to reduce the charges. Gresham, 40, pleaded guilty last month to two counts of second-degree child molestation. As part of his plea, he didn’t admit any wrongdoing. Instead, he agreed that a jury likely would convict him if he’d gone to trial.

The new conviction is not a strike, so it does not lead to longer sentencing than four to six years in prison.

Prosecutors agreed to recommend a low-end sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. The victim’s family wanted to resolve the case, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Adam Cornell said.

“It is important that you know we did not accept this deal because we did not feel we would win in court. We know we would have won again. We have truth on our side,” the victim’s mom said Monday.

The family wanted the certainty that came with a guilty plea so they could move forward, instead of living through another trial and more appeals.

Gresham already served about four years while fighting his life sentence. He could have been released soon if the judge had agreed to go along with the lawyers.

Gresham did not apologize Monday. Instead, he told the judge that he wanted to be released so he could be with his own children.

“They need me as much as I need them,” he said.

His attorney, Donald Wackerman, encouraged the judge to follow the sentence negotiated by both sides and not be swayed by media attention surrounding the case or the emotional plea by the victim’s family.

The girl’s mother Monday explained what he’d stolen from her child.

“My daughter, at a very young age, had to learn that there was genuine evil in this world. And this evil was not the bogeyman. He was not the stranger who you warn your children about,” she said. “The evil came in the shape of a guy who was a trusted friend, the now ex-husband of my best friend.”

Her daughter has struggled with depression and an eating disorder since disclosing the abuse. As parents, she and her husband have been left with overwhelming guilt, feeling they failed to protect their daughter.

The judge was clear in her message to the parents and victim.

“The only one who did something wrong was Mr. Gresham,” Fair said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not (the victim’s) fault.”

Fair said she didn’t believe Gresham deserved a low-end sentence. He had previously abused a child. He didn’t take responsibility for that crime and hasn’t taken any “meaningful responsibility” for the current case.

“I can’t go in good conscience with a low-end sentence,” Fair said.

That means Gresham has about two years left to serve. Once he’s released he will have to register as a sex offender and undergo treatment.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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