Respected judge retires after 21 years

EVERETT — Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman often found himself at the center of high-profile criminal cases.

As a veteran county prosecutor, he tried gut-wrenching cases. Once he took the bench in 1991, he presided over some of the county’s most headline-grabbing trials.

Yet, as McKeeman recently reflected on his career, he was hard-pressed to name any specific case that stood out.

“To me, every case was important to the people involved,” McKeeman said. “And some that didn’t get publicity, I felt had a bigger impact on society.”

McKeeman said he’ll miss the challenge of making decisions that benefit the community, just as he’ll miss searching for ways to improve how the courts work for the people who are seeking a resolution to their dispute.

“I’ve loved it. It’s a great position,” McKeeman said. “You get a chance to affect people’s lives in what you hope is a positive way.”

McKeeman retired late last month. He is the sixth local Superior Court judge to hang up his robe in the last three years. Between them, the retired judges took with them more than 120 years of experience on the bench.

Judge Marybeth Dingledy said McKeeman and the other judges had a wealth of knowledge that they graciously shared with the rookies on the bench.

“Hopefully they taught everyone well,” said Dingledy, who was appointed this year to the position vacated by Judge Ronald Castleberry.

McKeeman, who was a high school math teacher before going to law school, started his legal career with the county in the prosecutor’s office. He worked two stints there, first in the 1970s. He left the office for a job with the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, where he worked on legislation. He returned to the county in 1983, when Prosecuting Attorney Seth Dawson recruited him to be the chief criminal deputy prosecutor.

That’s where Judge Michael Downes met him. As a supervisor, McKeeman interviewed Downes for a job. The former deputy prosecutor recalled how emphatic McKeeman was about being a lawyer grounded in honesty and fairness. He insisted that all decisions should be based on appropriate standards, and not made arbitrarily, Downes said.

McKeeman and Downes tried the case of a Navy sailor accused of killing Ray and Evelyn Sawyer in their Bothell home in 1989. The prosecutors were seeking Tommy Metcalf’s death until his attorney raised questions about the county’s jury selection process. Metcalf, once stationed aboard a Bangor submarine, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder. He remains behind bars. The county later changed how it found prospective jurors.

Downes said he learned a lot working alongside McKeeman.

“He taught me to pay attention to detail and handle all decisions and cases honestly and ethically based on real information,” Downes said.

McKeeman was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1991.

While he enjoyed being a prosecutor, McKeeman said he was intrigued by the challenge of being a judge.

“I thought it was a place where I could do some good and make a difference in the world,” he said.

He said the position also appealed to his curiosity. He enjoyed learning a little about a lot, he said. One day on the bench he might hear from doctors about a specific medical procedure and the next case might entail detailed engineering information.

Dingledy, a former public defender, tried numerous cases in front of McKeeman.

She admired how he treated everyone in his courtroom with respect. He was a fair listener who made wise decisions, she said.

“He is what I aspire to be,” she said.

Not only was he a mentor to other judges, his insight was invaluable, Castleberry said.

“I know the bench will miss his leadership,” he said.

Recently retired Judge Kenneth Cowsert said McKeeman always was willing to stop what he was doing to answer a question. His advice was grounded in his extensive knowledge of the law, Cowsert said.

McKeeman served three terms as presiding judge, an administrative role that often had him poring over budgets and tackling policy questions. He also was active in state judicial matters, serving on the state Board of Judicial Administration and the state Superior Court Judges Association.

“He has served the citizens of Snohomish County with the utmost hard work and fairness,” Castleberry said.

McKeeman was known for spotting weaknesses in the system and finding a solution. He was behind creating the nation’s first At-Risk-Youth Drug Treatment Court. McKeeman spearheaded the court in 2001 after seeing parents struggle to navigate the legal system on behalf of their children. The court offers support to parents whose children have a substance abuse problem but haven’t been arrested or charged with a crime. The court helps kids get into treatment and back on track with school.

McKeeman presided over the court for 4 ½ years.

“He has a heart for young people. His work at juvenile court, especially with at-risk youth and drug court, was his passion. Their triumphs gave him validation as a jurist,” Peggy Witten said.

Witten served as McKeeman’s court reporter for 16 years before she retired in May.

She sought the job in McKeeman’s courtroom based on his reputation as a fair and honest man. She was not disappointed.

“He has a way of bringing out the best in everyone,” Witten said.

Over the years, Witten was struck by McKeeman’s wisdom, thoughtfulness and “wicked sense of humor.”

She recalled that when his court staff held a funeral for their betta fish, Bob, McKeeman’s contribution to the memorial luncheon was a can of sardines.

McKeeman also is a pretty good cribbage player, Cowsert said. Over the years, the two passed a stuffed skunk back and forth, depending on who was bested during their lunch-time game.

McKeeman could be “aggressive” about organizing a game if he was the one holding the skunk, Cowsert joked.

His colleagues also called McKeeman a family man. He and his wife of 33 years have two grown children.

McKeeman said he plans “to do nothing but goof off” over the next month or so. He then intends to work as an arbitrator and mediator.

“My 2 ½-year-old granddaughter also needs a playmate,” he added.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

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