Judge gives career criminal another chance to change

EVERETT — Heath Mitchell dodged a bullet Wednesday.

On Oct. 8, 2013, he was on the run, bleeding from a head wound after being pistol-whipped during an attempted robbery in a south Everett motel room where he’d been selling drugs.

Somehow, he’d managed to get control of the would-be robber’s weapon.

Somehow, a single shot was fired, and the man who’d clobbered him staggered outside to die in the parking lot.

Mitchell, 39, slipped into the night. He dumped the gun behind a nearby apartment building. He was still battered and bloody when police caught up with him as he tried to reach his home. He was carrying enough heroin to leave little doubt that he’d been dealing drugs.

With nine prior felonies, mostly for property and drug crimes, along with nearly three dozen misdemeanors, Mitchell swiftly found himself locked up and under investigation for homicide. He was looking at decades behind bars.

But murder charges were not filed after the Everett police investigation found evidence supporting his claims that he had acted in self-defense.

And Mitchell caught an even bigger break Wednesday, when a Snohomish County judge decided to gamble that the longtime criminal is finally ready to make a change.

Instead of following a deputy prosecutor’s recommendation that Mitchell head to prison for about a decade, Judge Richard Okrent ordered an alternate sentence that will mix incarceration and drug treatment.

If Mitchell adheres to the rules of the drug offender sentencing alternative program, he’ll likely spend about five years behind bars undergoing chemical dependency treatment and the same amount of time under community supervision and monitored sobriety.

That was the result Mitchell’s parents and his lawyer, Mark Mestel, implored the judge to consider.

Under a plea agreement, the longtime Everett defense attorney had negotiated for his client to admit to violating firearms laws and drug trafficking in connection with the October 2013 incident as well as an auto theft committed while Mitchell was out on bail.

The defendant apologized for his role in the death of Robert Scott, 39, a man he’d met while in prison. Scott had served time for shooting a man in the groin while trying to collect an unpaid drug debt.

“It’s a tragedy and I’m sorry,” Mitchell said of the shooting. He then asked the judge to give him a chance to make a change.

Before announcing his decision, Okrent read from a state Department of Corrections report that recommended against cutting Mitchell a break.

It described his diligence in pursuit of illegal activity, and a demonstrated history of “criminal mind-set and poor lifestyle choices.”

Okrent said there were plenty of reasons to toss Mitchell aside, but he wondered if with treatment the man could redirect the energy he’d spent on crime into building a productive life.

He’s 39, the judge noted. If not now, when?

“I’m taking a great risk on Mr. Mitchell,” Okrent said.

If Mitchell ever again faces sentencing, the judge said, he was certain there would be no second chance.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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