Superior Court Judge Michael Downes (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Superior Court Judge Michael Downes (Dan Bates / The Herald)

‘This is a very human place’: A retiring judge reflects

Superior Court Judge Michael Downes, a former deputy prosecutor, served on the bench for 14 years.

EVERETT — For 35 years, some of the most important moments in Michael Downes’ life have unfolded in Snohomish County courtrooms.

The cases, the controversies and the casts of characters have changed constantly. What’s remained, Downes said, is this: It always has been about people.

Some were angry, some scared or grieving. Some were confused, some bored. Some were looking for answers. Others faced change that forever altered their worlds.

“What I hope I’ve come to learn is this is a very human place to be,” the judge said recently during an interview in his chambers at the courthouse.

Downes, 66, is scheduled to retire May 31. That comes after serving for 14 years as a Snohomish County Superior Court judge and working for 21 years before that as a local deputy prosecutor.

In both those roles, the lawyer found himself grappling with some of the county’s biggest cases.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said that aside from his father, Downes is the finest man he’s ever met.

“I have never known anyone who was more honest and concerned with doing the right thing and being fair, no matter how difficult or unpopular,” Roe said.

Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, met Downes as an opponent in criminal trials. She’s watched him grow into a judge with a reputation for being able to connect with people from many backgrounds.

“He’s been very supportive of proper funding of public defense and has a good understanding of the importance of quality public defense,” Kyle said.

Downes was appointed to the bench in 2004 by then-Gov. Gary Locke. At the time he was an assistant chief criminal deputy prosecutor. He’d joined the office in January 1983 and rose through the ranks to become one of its most-accomplished trial attorneys.

He grew up in a blue-collar Boston family and paid for his education by working jobs at a mayonnaise factory, a news stand and a dive bar. In the courtroom he developed a reputation for toughness, but also an ability to deliver the facts and the law in an unvarnished way that people easily understood.

He gravitated toward prosecuting violent crimes, and while he hasn’t done that work for years, the details are never far from mind.

For example, Downes easily recalls the weirdness that accompanied the prosecution of Teresa Gaethe-Leonard. She’s now serving a 30-year sentence for the 1997 murder of Everett teacher Chuck Leonard. She repeatedly shot her estranged husband because he stood in the way of her plans to make a new life in Hawaii with a wealthy boyfriend. When suspicion turned her way, Gaethe-Leonard fled the country, attempted suicide and then claimed innocence by reason of insanity. There was evidence of infidelity on both sides of the marriage. The trial played out like a soap opera and attracted a daily crowd in the courtroom.

By contrast, only a handful of people were present in 2000 to watch Downes and longtime deputy prosecutor Helene Blume bring Charles Finch to trial a second time for the August 1994 aggravated murders of sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard, 34, and Ronald Modlin, 38. Finch had been convicted and sentenced to die for the crimes, but a new penalty trial was ordered by the state Supreme Court. Finch asked the jury to spare him, but hours later jumped from an upper floor at the jail, causing injuries that ultimately ended his life.

In his office, Downes has kept a jar filled with dried petals from the bouquet of flowers the slain deputy’s family sent him for the compassion he showed them during the ordeal.

Kyle said Downes has touched many lives. She recently was getting her car serviced and needed a shuttle ride. The driver asked Kyle about her work. He told her he was a relative of Rachel Burkheimer, 18, of Marysville, who was murdered in 2002. Downes was the lead prosecutor in the case, which involved a series of three back-to-back trials that played out over much of a year.

The driver recalled Downes’ kindness and care for Rachel’s family, Kyle said. He also remarked on the support the future judge received from his wife, Edwina Downes. A nurse, she often found time around her shifts to visit the courtroom.

Downes had only recently concluded prosecuting Burkheimer’s killers when the governor appointed him a judge. His new job required him to make changes, including limiting his contact with former colleagues to on-the-record hearings in the courtroom.

Still, being a prosecutor was good training, Downes said.

The job taught him the law. It taught him court rules and procedure. It also cultivated a mindset of letting the facts lead him, not the passions stirred by a case, Downes said.

Roe said Downes displayed the makings of a good judge when they worked together as prosecutors.

“When you went to his office for advice and told him whatever issue or quandary you were in, and asked what he thought you should do, he would generally say: ‘Well, Mark, what would be the best and fairest result?’”

That’s where Downes started, Roe said, finding the path toward what was just.

The judge said his plans for retirement include starting a mediation practice, exercising more and spending more time with his family. He and Edwina raised three children. They are awaiting the arrival of their first grandchild.

Downes said his time on the bench was made easier by skilled attorneys who knew the law and how to present cases. He also found the issues, and the people involved, endlessly interesting.

There were many days when he reflected upon his time in the mayonnaise factory, or the news stand or the dive bar, he said. He considered what he’d learned spending time up close with people from all walks of life.

Some good people do bad things. Some bad people have the capacity for good. Everybody has a story.

It was his job to listen. To weigh the evidence. To decide what to believe.

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

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