Photo by Jernej Furman via Flickr
Fighting for a Chance to Prove I’m Ready to Return Home
by Chris Blackwell
Two years ago, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state’s felony drug possession statute was unconstitutional, a decision that made thousands of people eligible to have certain drug-related convictions removed from their criminal records. After serving nearly 20 years of a 45-year sentence, I was hopeful that the ruling in State v. Blake would provide me with a pathway home from prison. But throughout the process, I’ve encountered a series of obstacles that show just how difficult it can be to obtain post-conviction relief.
When I was 22 years old, I was sent to prison for taking another person’s life during a drug robbery. In Washington, your offender score, which is calculated by adding up points assigned for each previous conviction, determines your sentence. This meant I was punished not only for one terrible mistake, but also for the low-level offenses I committed as a kid struggling to escape poverty. Under the Blake decision, I hoped to remove the simple drug conviction from my record, which would allow me to be resentenced under a recalculated offender score.
I can never take back the harm that I caused. But over the past decade, I have focused on my rehabilitation and accountability. I want nothing more than to go home to my wife and serve my community. Washington does not have parole, so my only chance for release before the end of my sentence is through the courts.
Last year, my lawyer filed a motion requesting a resentencing hearing, citing Blake. Prosecutors agreed I was eligible and the court scheduled my hearing for December 16, 2022. I thought this was the break I had been waiting for. An adjusted offender score might not dramatically affect my actual sentence, but getting in front of a sentencing judge would at least give me an opportunity to highlight my young age at the time of my crime, the mitigating factors that led to my incarceration, and what I’ve accomplished in the past 20 years.
It’s a common misconception that criminal justice reform measures lead to a mass exodus of prisoners. In reality, there are extensive logistical and financial barriers to relief, even for those who are eligible.
In the months before my hearing, my wife and I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours preparing. On top of my existing legal team, we hired an expert to speak about brain development and how it contributes to impulsive behavior in adolescents, a doctor who specializes in adverse childhood experiences, and a videographer to compile interviews with people who spoke about my transformation behind bars. Family members and supporters flew in from around the country.
As my court date approached, I was transferred to county jail, where I spent two days in solitary confinement before being placed in the general population. The jail conditions were torturous, even compared to prison standards, but I told myself it would be worth it.
Then on December 14, just two days before the hearing, the prosecutor said she needed more time to prepare. The judge accepted her request and rescheduled for February 17. The people who had flown in returned home without seeing me, because I was stuck in a jail that had suspended visitation.
As the February date approached, my supporters booked new flights and I steeled myself for another trip to county jail. But just a week before the rescheduled hearing, the prosecutor changed her position, claiming I wasn’t actually eligible for resentencing. My resentencing hearing would now be a hearing to determine whether I could be resentenced at all.
I was devastated, but tried to stay hopeful, only to hear on the morning of my hearing that the date was getting pushed back another week—the prosecutor told the court she had the stomach flu.
Finally, the hearing took place. The prosecutor argued that I was ineligible for resentencing under Blake because of a technicality over how my score was calculated. My lawyer argued that because the drug conviction showed up on my criminal history, I was eligible for resentencing, regardless of how it factored into my score.
In early March, the judge made his decision. But instead of ruling on the merits, he sent my case to the appellate courts, where it could now drag out for months, maybe years. I am determined to continue this fight, which will cost me thousands more in legal fees and put immeasurable stress on me, my wife, and the support networks we have called upon to help prove that I am ready to reenter society.
I am fortunate to have the resources just to make it this far. Many people in prison cannot afford these endless battles and are forced to abandon their cases. But all of this speaks to a bigger systemic problem: If the courts are to truly work in the interest of justice—rather than simply doling out punishment—prosecutors cannot continue to be so singularly focused on keeping people in prison, regardless of the merits. And judges must be brave enough to make decisions that take into account an individual’s capacity for rehabilitation and redemption.
I don’t know if I’ll ever receive the resentencing hearing I was once promised, but I do know this system must change.
ICYMI — from The Appeal
The crackdown on Atlanta’s “Stop Cop City” movement has escalated rapidly in recent months with a series of raids and arrests. At least 42 people have been charged with domestic terrorism, which experts are calling an attack on constitutional rights. Aja Arnold reports from Atlanta on the increasingly authoritarian tactics officials are using to suppress protests.
A debate in Cleveland over plans to build a new jail echos a fundamental disagreement now playing out in communities across the country: Can a more “modern” jail prevent dangerous conditions? Advocates tell Katie Rose Quandt that many of these issues are inherent to incarceration and require different solutions.
In the news
So-called “critical infrastructure” laws are now on the books in 19 states, following lobbying efforts by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the oil and gas industry. The statutes give law enforcement a broader net to investigate and potentially arrest and prosecute environmental protesters. [Piper French / Bolts]
Indiana is about to ban gender-affirming surgery for incarcerated adults. State lawmakers approved the measure last week. It is now awaiting Republican Governor Eric Holcomb’s signature. [Dan Carden / KPVI]
Reporters at WIRED obtained an internal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement database that shows the agency has been demanding data from elementary schools, news outlets, and abortion clinics.[Dhruv Mehrotra / WIRED]
The director of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, one of the largest police unions in California, has been charged with illegally importing fentanyl into the U.S. Prosecutors allege that her involvement in an international drug smuggling ring goes back to at least 2015. [María Luisa Paúl / Washington Post]
A federal civil rights lawsuit out of Shasta County, California, accuses district fair officials of siccing the local sheriff’s department on a family who took back their daughter’s pet goat after selling it at a livestock auction. Deputies ultimately seized the animal, and the family fears it was barbecued at a community event. [Sam Stanton / Sacramento Bee]
That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.
The Appeal in Your Inbox
Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.