EVERETT — There’s no telling what new technology Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne could have ushered in before his age forced him off the bench.
At 72 and with nearly four decades of judicial experience under his belt, Wynne is the longest serving jurist on the Superior Court bench. He’s also known by his colleagues as a tech guru.
He’s been a driving force to push the court and his fellow judges into the 21st century. It’s behind-the-scenes work that often meant hours of meetings but Wynne believes in making the court accessible and efficient.
“We always find it ironic that our most senior judge is the most skilled with technology,” Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair said. “He just keeps the court running. He’s always willing to roll up his sleeves and get to work, even if it’s not the most glamorous part of being a judge.”
Wynne is retiring from Superior Court early next month. He’d planned to stick around until he was 75, the upper age limit established by the state Constitution. A Seattle lawyer changed those plans when he filed for Wynne’s position in May. Wynne wasn’t up for another election and withdrew his name. His former law clerk, deputy prosecutor Cindy Larsen, won the seat last month.
Wynne has been a Superior Court judge since 1993. Before that he was a judge in South District Court for 14 years and a deputy prosecutor for seven. He’s worked for Snohomish County for 45 years.
“He’s a fixture here,” Superior Court Judge Janice Ellis said. “He’s such a man of duty.”
Wynne grew up in Everett, the son of a postal clerk. He graduated from Everett High School and attended law school at the University of Washington. He went into the Army in 1969, stationed mostly in Germany until 1971. He served 22 years in the U.S. Army Reserves, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1993.
Wynne briefly worked as an assistant attorney general for Washington. He came back home in 1972, landing a job in the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office. He wasn’t there long before deciding to run for judge.
“I was always more interested in serving the public than in private practice,” Wynne said. “I started thinking about a judicial career. I felt that was the direction I wanted to head.”
Some of Wynne’s colleagues on the bench remember trying cases in front of him in district court.
In 1990, Ellis, a newly minted deputy prosecutor, had her first solo criminal trial in his courtroom. The defendant was accused of driving with a suspended license. Ellis said she was less than prepared for a bench trial in the middle of a hectic criminal calendar.
The defense attorney, Beth Fraser, now a District Court judge, challenged Ellis, saying she hadn’t established corpus delecti. In other words, the deputy prosecutor hadn’t shown that a crime had happened.
“I was stupefied,” Ellis said. She stalled, asking the defense to state her objection more clearly.
“Judge Wynne looked at me and calmly said, ‘That’s a clear objection, counselor,’” Ellis recalled.
He could have lectured Ellis or yelled at her for not being prepared. Instead, he was polite and concise.
“It’s one of the things I admire about him,” she said.
Wynne is known for his even-keeled demeanor, Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said. Lawyers knew going into his courtroom they’d be treated with respect.
“He never let me down, and he ruled against me plenty of times,” Roe said.
Kathleen Kyle, the executive director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, found herself in front of Wynne more times than she can count.
“Judge Wynne gives you a very good trial. He listens. He can dissect what you’re saying quickly, which may or may not help you depending on what you’re saying,” Kyle said. “You never felt like he’d already made up his mind.”
She admired that he was willing to hear her out, even changing a ruling if she presented him clear case law that supported her point.
“He has a habit of looking at you and nodding while you speak. I made the mistake of thinking he was agreeing with me,” Kyle said. “That’s not what he’s doing. He’s being respectful and acknowledging that he hears what you’re saying.”
That calm demeanor might not always have been easy to maintain. Wynne over the years presided over high profile cases that attracted headlines, TV cameras and in some instances a few strange characters.
One case in particular stands out. Wynne was fairly new to the Superior Court bench when Franklin Carrico was tried for sexually assaulting his daughter. Carrico, who insisted on acting as his own attorney, referred to himself as ambassador from the Kingdom of Heaven. He didn’t recognize the authority of the court.
Wynne prohibited Carrico from directly questioning the victim and ordered Carrico to ask his questions through his stand-by lawyer. Carrico ignored the order once and Wynne tossed him in jail overnight.
Then Carrico fled in the middle of his trial, but sent Wynne a videotaped message. He called the judge “a black-robed priest of Satan.” Carrico was convicted in absentia, but remained in hiding until his 1995 arrest.
Wynne also presided over the headline-grabbing trials of Victor David. David was accused of holding his disabled wife on a filthy sailboat and beating her. The abuse left her blind and with brain damage.
“You put your head down and focus on the work that needs to be done regardless if there are cameras in the courtroom,” Wynne said.
Wynne has presided over nearly 20 homicide cases during his tenure. Some of those are hard to leave in the past. Such is the case of Richard Clark, the man accused of raping and killing 7-year-old Roxanne Doll. Wynne presided over Clark’s retrial, which was cut short by a guilty plea, sparing Clark a possible death sentence. As part of the agreement, Clark had to confess in detail what he’d done to Roxanne.
“That was a very emotional proceeding,” Wynne said.
Now that she’s become a judge, Ellis said she has come to value Wynne’s temperament even more.
“Since I’ve joined the bench I can appreciate that Wynne never took the bait,” she said. “He maintained his demeanor. He’s steady and patient.”
Retired Superior Court Judge Kenneth Cowsert said he never saw Wynne lose his temper.
“He took his responsibilities about being judge very seriously,” retired Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry said. “He never wanted to do anything to demean or embarrass the bench. He really conducted himself in that fashion, and that’s how he conducted himself personally.”
Wynne has been an invaluable resource and generous with his time, his colleagues said. He often was the first person they’d approach if they had a question about a decision they were mulling, Fair said.
“It seems there are very few questions that he doesn’t have an answer for,” she said.
Sharon Beba has worked as a county clerk in Wynne’s courtroom for 15 years. She watched a lot of young law clerks come through the door. Most were fresh out of law school.
“He guided them. He never had a harsh word or criticism for them. He’d make suggestions,” Beba said. “He always brought out the best in each one.”
Off the bench, Wynne has been a champion for upgrading the court’s technology and case management system. He’s been active with the committee that oversees the automated information system that serves the state courts.
He was part of the state acquisition team to find a modern case management system to replace one built in the 1970s. The Odyssey system was launched this year and provides electronic access to records for the judges and court staff. It was a huge step toward a paperless court.
Wynne has been the chairman of the state court’s data dissemination committee, whose work included removing juvenile court records from a public website. The records still are available in the local clerk’s office.
“The idea was to protect the kids and allow for their rehabilitation,” Wynne said.
For the past five years Wynne has presided over the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative calendar. That program allows some offenders with drug addictions to receive intensive treatment in lieu of prison time. Wynne was charged with reviewing whether offenders were in compliance.
“I find it very rewarding to see people graduate and go on to be successful in life,” Wynne said.
The judge said he’s not quite ready to retire. Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson has asked him to fill in as interim judge in Everett Municipal Court until an election in the fall.
Wynne does look forward to spending more time with his five grandchildren.
“I will certainly miss the people here though,” Wynne said. “I will miss a lot of the attorneys and the exchanges in the courtrooms.”
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.