The Temple of Justice at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

The Temple of Justice at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Justices: A missed court date does not imply a guilty mind

A Lynnwood man won his appeal to the state Supreme Court, after his case “became not about the underlying charge.”

EVERETT — A state Supreme Court ruling this month quoted a judge, quoting the Bible.

“The wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the innocent are as bold as a lion.”

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court rejected the notion that a Lynnwood man skipping his court date — fleeing, “when no man pursueth” — could be presented as conclusive evidence that he felt guilty about the original crime.

State Supreme Court justices agreed that criminalizing a single missed court date can disproportionately harm people of color, as well as the poor, people without reliable transportation and people with scheduling conflicts due to child care or work, citing a 2020 law review article by Alek Johnson, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

The new ruling came less than a year after the state Legislature revised Washington’s bail jumping law, giving people more leeway to respond to a warrant if they miss court once.

Samuel Slater, 27, had one unexcused absence in his case. It predated the new law.

According to letters from family in his case file, Slater suffered severe abuse as a young child until he was adopted at the age of 5. He was diagnosed with attachment disorder in elementary school, his family wrote.

As an adult, records show Slater was convicted of violating no-contact orders five times in five years, among about a dozen other misdemeanors for driving offenses and domestic violence. Slater pleaded guilty in 2016 to misdemeanor assault on a Snohomish County woman. A judge ordered him not to have contact with her. According to charging papers, he showed up to her home within a day of being let out of jail, as she was packing to move somewhere he couldn’t find her. He called out to her, and she shut the window, turned out the lights and dialed 911, according to police.

Slater was charged in 2017 with the alleged felony violation of a no-contact order. He missed a court date in September 2017, but showed up to a hearing one month later to have it quashed. Prosecutors added felony bail jumping to his charges.

In at least three separate motions, Slater’s defense attorney Frederic Moll asked for separate trials on the two counts. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris found, in a pretrial hearing, that the charges could be tried together for “judicial economy reasons.”

“More importantly,” read a note handwritten in a margin on another legal document signed by Farris, “even if the two counts were tried separately, the other count or other alleged crime would still come into evidence in each separate case.”

Judge Ellen Fair presided over the trial, and Fair agreed with Farris. The question wasn’t simply about prejudice, but “unfair prejudice,” Fair noted. And the charges appeared to be cross-admissible, meaning one count could be used in part to prove the other.

Judge Farris is a former public defender. Judge Fair is a former prosecutor.

A panel of three more judges on the state Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion: The trial court judge had made an adequate analysis showing (1) the reason why bail jumping could be admitted; (2) that the evidence was relevant; and (3) that the value of that evidence outweighed any unfair prejudice.

According to the Court of Appeals, case law from at least two cases in Washington had established that flight, when unexplained, indicates a reaction to a consciousness of guilt.

The Supreme Court decided the Superior Court judges were looking at evidence under that mistaken conclusion.

Slater’s case went in front of 12 jurors in November 2018. In closing arguments, deputy prosecutor Adam Sturdivant pointed many times to how the defendant missed court, and he told the jury what that meant.

“If he didn’t do it,” Sturdivant asked, “why didn’t he show up for trial call a year ago?”

“If he didn’t do it,” the prosecutor continued, “why didn’t he show? He just didn’t show on the day that mattered, because he’s guilty.”

“Man, if (the) case was that weak, I think I’d show up for trial call. I think I’d be there if there were all these contradictions. I think I’d get this thing out of the way and move on with my life. I’d show up. He didn’t. He didn’t show because he didn’t want to face the facts.”

It took the jury two hours to find Slater guilty on both counts. The judge ordered him to serve two years and one month in prison, plus a year on probation. It was an exceptional sentence well below the five years in prison requested by the prosecutor, who sought a prison term in line with state standards.

The Supreme Court found the Snohomish County judges’ decision allowed Sturdivant to make “improper” comments to the jury about Slater’s propensity to violate court orders.

“Mr. Slater’s trial ultimately became not about the underlying charge, but about the missed court hearing,” attorney James Herr argued in February before the state Supreme Court, on Slater’s behalf.

The state Supreme Court acknowledged there are other valid reasons why a person could miss court, aside from being guilty.

In fact, as Slater awaited trial, he showed up to the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett on May 31, 2018. He asked a probation officer for help finding his hearing. The officer told him he needed to go to a courthouse in Monroe. He was wrong. The hearing was in Everett after all. The probation officer wrote a letter to the court explaining it was his mistake, not Slater’s. In the meantime, a judge issued another warrant. That was quashed in days, and a second count of bail jumping was never filed.

“The United States Supreme Court … has warned for over a century that flight is not limited to those who are guilty, it also includes some who are innocent,” wrote state Supreme Court Justice G. Helen Whitener in the opinion. “ … Therefore, while flight evidence may be considered by the jury, the court must not instruct the jury that flight evidence is conclusive proof of guilt.”

Slater had never been found guilty of bail jumping before. Justices wrote they were faced with “what may be the most tenuous and speculative form of alleged flight evidence: the single (missed court date) accompanied by a motion to quash just over one month later.”

“If this was an ongoing thing and there was no real reason for a person not showing up, that’s one thing,” Slater’s trial attorney, Moll, said in an interview last week. “When there’s a mistake in scheduling, or a car breaks down, that’s another thing.”

Slater did not entirely stay out of trouble while he awaited trial. Another woman accused him of stalking. No felony charges were filed, but she asked for an anti-harassment order in 2017. She wrote that she dated Slater for a few weeks, and he didn’t seem to grasp that she broke up with him.

“After that I had to break up with him another 3 times because he wasn’t understanding,” she wrote. “He continually called and texted.”

Around the same time, Slater was working at a pizza parlor when he had a chance run-in with a religious brother from a Lynnwood church. Slater’s adoptive father, who was not religious, wrote in a letter to a judge that it was “the closest thing to fate and/or divine intervention that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Slater started going to church four times a week, in suit and tie, according to the letter. He earned his GED, became a carpenter and moved into his own place, “with the faith and guidance of his church,” his father wrote in 2018.

“The Sam of today is not the Sam that I knew a couple of years ago,” his father wrote. “ … I am now proud to be able to call my Sam my son.”

The ACLU of Washington, the Washington Defender Association, Columbia Legal Services and the King County Department of Public Defense signed on to a legal brief in support of the defendant’s case.

In the Snohomish County public defender’s law review article, cited three times in the Slater opinion, Johnson argued that keeping a bail jumping law on the books as a separate crime is ineffective. Studies have shown convictions for failing to appear increasing over time, while rates of people actually not showing up to court have “remained consistent,” she wrote.

Judges have other ways to compel a person to avoid skipping court: a warrant, higher bail or stricter release conditions. And missed court dates factor into future bail hearings.

Johnson advocated for abolishing the state’s bail jumping law altogether, in part because the fear of being convicted of a new felony “unfairly pressures” a defendant to plead guilty to the original charge.

“It has been a tool utilized to secure convictions rather than justice,” Johnson wrote.

Typically, a guilty plea makes it much more difficult for a defendant to appeal. Slater was able to do so because he took his case to trial.

The defendant appealed at public expense, because a judge found he could not afford to hire attorneys of his own. He posted a $25,000 appeal bond that let him stay out of prison while the case wended its way through the legal system.

The state Supreme Court overturned Slater’s convictions and ruled the case must be returned to Snohomish County, where prosecutors can decide whether to try the case again. If so, there would need to be two separate trials.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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