By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
EVERETT — In 1994, Larry Lee Fisher was the first person in Snohomish County to be sentenced to life in prison under the state’s persistent offender law, one of the first in the nation.
Just a month after the three-strikes law went into effect, Fisher robbed $151 from a Lynnwood sandwich shop. The holdup was his third conviction for second-degree robbery. Before Dec. 2, 1993, the crime likely would have sent Fisher to prison for about three years. Under the new law, a judge had no choice but to hand Fisher a life sentence.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Fisher is faced with the prospect of becoming a free man.
Gov. Chris Gregoire late last month signed off on conditionally commuting Fisher’s life sentence. That opens the door for Fisher’s potential release back to the community by the end of the year.
He is the first Snohomish County three-striker to have his sentence commuted.
The governor wrote that Fisher, now 54, has accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized to his victims. He’s also recognized that his criminal behavior was to due to his abuse of alcohol and drugs and untreated mental illness, she wrote.
While in prison, Fisher has participated in mental health treatment and substance abuse programs, the governor noted.
“I have determined that the best interests of justice will be served by this action,” Gregoire wrote.
Gregoire’s decision was welcome news for a man who has been waiting for 18 months for any word from the governor’s office. Fisher, who on his own unsuccessfully petitioned for clemency once before, was hopeful after the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board in June 2011 unanimously recommended commuting his life sentence.
He became more nervous as the end of Gregoire’s term approached, his lawyers said.
“He was checking in with us fairly regularly,” said Whitney Rivera, one of two attorneys from the Snohomish County Public Defender Association who filed the petition.
The day after Christmas, his lawyers spoke with him about the paperwork Gregoire sent out, outlining the conditions of commuting his sentence. They met with him a couple days later to sign the documents.
“He seemed very hopeful about the future,” Rivera said.
She and her boss, Bill Jaquette, the executive director of the public defender association, also are hopeful that Fisher one day will be free.
“It certainly pleases us all that it turned out this way,” Jaquette said. “Is it justice? No, because the maximum sentence for his crime was 10 years. He’s served 19 years. Is it the law? Yes. I don’t like the law.”
Jaquette over the years has argued that the three-strikes law is flawed. He says it eliminates the discretion judges typically exercise in considering a person’s life and the circumstance of the specific crime before handing down a sentence.
“I think the problem with the law is it make decisions based on arbitrary facts, whatever crime fits into the box,” Jaquette said.
Proponents say voters sent a clear message that they want habitual offenders off the streets for good. They also point out that the three-strikes law allows inmates to do as Fisher has done, and to seek clemency from the governor, an elected official accountable to voters.
Petitioning for clemency isn’t simple or automatic, Jaquette said.
He and Rivera volunteered their time to help Fisher. His office also raised about $3,000 through donations to pay for a psychological evaluation to address the concerns Snohomish County prosecutors raised in 2009 about Fisher’s mental health issues. At that time, prosecutors were opposed to Fisher’s release.
The doctor who examined Fisher concluded that the inmate’s mental health diagnosis is not a large contributing factor to whether he’ll reoffend.
In 2011, Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe wrote a letter to the clemency board, saying he and Fisher’s victims would not oppose the inmate being set free under strict conditions.
Gregoire’s signature doesn’t guarantee Fisher will be released from prison. Instead, she has given the state Department of Corrections the authority to begin planning for Fisher’s eventual release.
Fisher would be required to stay out of trouble in prison and to comply with the re-entry plan and mental health treatment. That could eventually lead to him being moved to a work-release facility. Fisher can expect to be under the supervision of the state for the rest of his life, Rivera said. He’ll be required to follow more than a dozen conditions outlined by the governor, including staying away from drugs and alcohol and undergoing random urinalysis and Breathalyzer testing. Fisher would face returning to prison for life if he violates the conditions or if he’s convicted of another crime.
In 1994, Fisher’s case attracted national attention. Reporters with The New York Times, USA Today and National Public Radio took an interest in how the case was playing out as lawmakers from around the country eyed Washington’s voter-approved three-strikes law.
Fisher’s first two strikes happened before the law was approved. He’d been convicted in 1986 after pushing his grandfather against a desk, grabbing his wallet and stealing $390. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to robbing $191 from a pizza parlor.
Prosecutors at the time acknowledged that Fisher was not the most violent person they’d prosecuted, but said the law left them no discretion but to seek a third strike.
Fisher is among the 33 people sentenced in Snohomish County to prison for life under the three-strikes law. The majority of those convictions happened during the early years of the law’s existence.
Prosecutors here are pursuing fewer third strikes. That’s in large part because such cases are heavily litigated, often as much as an aggravated murder case — the only other charge that can carry a mandatory life sentence. A handful of three-strikes life sentences have been overturned on appeals.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; email@example.com.