Jurist’s 20 years on bench touched many

EVERETT — Richard Thorpe believes in following the law.

Even when it meant the Snoho­mish County Superior Court judge had to hang up his black robe and walk away from a 20-year career that challenged his brain, needed his patience and tested his compassion.

“I have never been so happy working,” Thorpe said of his time on the bench.

Thorpe has overseen hundreds of cases, from broken marriages to the death penalty trial of a child killer.

He beat cancer in the middle of his tenure and went on to help launch the county’s first drug court. Thorpe said he is proudest of the time he spent helping addicts change their lives.

Thorpe’s last day on the bench was Jan. 9 — exactly 20 years to the day he began.

The judge didn’t want to retire, but the law is the law, and his wife of 47 years, Mary Pat, might have had a few words for him if there had been any way for him to stay.

Superior Court judges must retire by the end of the calendar year they turn 75. Thorpe celebrated his 74th birthday in December and opted to retire instead of run for re-election last November.

Fellow judges, attorneys and court staff who have worked with Thorpe said his compassion, willingness to listen and sense of humor will be missed.

“He’s just a nice guy and a class act,” Superior Court Judge Kenneth Cowsert said.

Diana Nishimoto, who was ­Thorpe’s court reporter for 18 years, said he may have come across as gruff but has a “heart of gold.”

He was a father figure to many in drug court, she said.

“Dick really enjoyed being a judge. He really worked hard at it,” Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry said. “I know all the judges will miss him.”

Thorpe didn’t have plans to be a Superior Court judge. He was an insurance lawyer in a small firm in Seattle. He became a municipal court judge in Edmonds to hone his skills as a trial lawyer. He found being a jurist suited him.

“I thoroughly enjoy the intellectual challenge of taking a factual situation, applying the law and making a decision,” he said. “I realized I wanted to finish my legal career as a judge.”

He won his first judicial race — his only contested one — and took office Jan. 9, 1989.

Over the years, Thorpe has seen people at their worst and best.

He said he won’t miss terminating the parental rights of people who can’t care for their children. Those have been the toughest decisions to make, he said.

He will miss the cases that challenged him.

Thorpe said the most intriguing case of his tenure came in 1995. The defendant, William Greene, was on trial for sexually molesting his therapist. Greene claimed one of his two dozen personalities, a young boy named Tyrone, was responsible for the attack.

The case attracted national attention. Thorpe eventually heard the case twice.

“The twists and turns were interesting,” he said.

Stern but gentle

Marybeth Dingledy, an attorney with the Snoho­mish County Public Defender’s Office, said she has admired Thorpe’s dedication to listening to all sides. She represented Greene in the second trial.

“I think he really cares about clients and really listens,” Dingledy said. “I think he really understands where some of our clients are coming from, probably because of his work in drug court.”

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis said she always admired the sensitivity Thorpe showed crime victims, especially those who had been sexually assaulted.

“No matter what, he always took the time to speak with victims, no matter how old they were, and gently and genuinely tell them what happened to them wasn’t their fault,” Ellis said.

Thorpe also had a reputation for being stern.

“We’ve always considered him a tough judge, but personally I enjoyed being in his courtroom. He acts with sense of humor and humility,” said Bill Jaquette, attorney and director of the Snoho­mish County Public Defender Association.

Jaquette was the defense attorney in what Thorpe called one of the most difficult cases of his career. Thorpe presided over the capital murder trial of Richard Mathew Clark, the man who ultimately admitted the 1995 kidnapping, rape and killing 7-year-old Roxanne Doll.

Thorpe said he didn’t shirk from holding Clark accountable but knew the stakes were high and every decision he made would be scrutinized.

In keeping with the jury’s verdict, Thorpe sentenced Clark to death.

“It was extremely serious, but it didn’t emotionally affect me — not any more than sending anyone to prison,” Thorpe said.

Clark eventually won a new trial. Under a deal that spared him the death penalty, Clark in 2006 pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison without parole.

A judge’s duty

“I think what a judge should do is apply the law as it is to the facts as they are and make a decision and not act like a social worker and not act like the black robe goes farther than it does,” Thorpe said.

Judges shouldn’t base decisions on what they think the law should be but on what the law actually is, he said.

“Your primary interest is the welfare of society, not the welfare of the individual defendant,” he said.

Despite his hard-nosed reputation, his willingness to listen led his colleagues and county attorneys to recommend Thorpe be the first judge for drug court. The program gives addicts a chance to avoid jail time by undergoing rigorous, court-supervised treatment.

“It’s tremendous. For the people who want to get control of their addiction it’s very, very effective,” Thorpe said. “The results for graduates are pretty long-lasting. It’s the most worthwhile thing I have every done in my professional life which spans 45 years.”

The drug court has a solid foundation because of the work that Thorpe did, Castleberry said. He dedicated many hours to the program, his colleagues said.

Much of the work came while Thorpe was recovering from cancer.

He was presiding over the 1998 trial of a woman accused of hiring a hit man to kill an ex-boyfriend when he first noticed a twinge in his side. Other symptoms showed up. Doctors eventually diagnosed Thorpe with colon cancer.

Thorpe said his reputation may have softened a bit after attorneys saw him on the bench wearing a fanny pack, which held his portable chemotherapy, along with Birkenstocks on his feet. They were the only shoes he could tolerate because the treatment irritated his toes.

“I looked like some hippy-dippy judge,” he said.

Thorpe said he is grateful to be alive. So grateful, that when anyone asks how he’s doing, his routinely answers in his deep, made-for-radio voice: “Fantastic.”

A busy retirement

The grandfather of four boys plans to stay busy in retirement. He’ll do some mediation and arbitration work, a little fishing and painting, and likely show up as a pro-tem judge somewhere.

“He has a love and passion for the job,” Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight said.

Thorpe oversaw his final adoption case late last month. He smiled down at the parents who pledged to care for the little boy as their own. He high-fived the boy and stood with the family for pictures.

Attorney Deane Minor told the courtroom he appreciated working with Thorpe over the last 20 years. He reminded the judge of a case several years ago, in which Thorpe was asked to decide the best placement for three boys. Thorpe worked tirelessly to protect the interest of those young boys, Minor said.

They have grown up to become happy, healthy, productive men, the attorney said.

“The way he protected them … is a big part of why they are who they are today,” Minor said. “His hand in their lives … and what he did for those boys was remarkable.”

Later, in his chambers Thorpe recalled the six-year case in great detail. He’d had to make some tough decisions.

“Sometimes you do some good wrapped in that black robe,” Thorpe said.

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

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