Federal Courts Move to Release Some Western Washington Inmates Vulnerable to COVID-19


Johnny Madison Williams Jr., known to the FBI as "The Shootist," gained infamy as one of the most prolific bank robbers in U.S. history. After his arrest in Bothell in 1994, a federal judge sentenced him to 92 years in prison; his Bureau of Prison release date was set for Dec. 14, 2072 — a life sentence, given that he is now 69 and sick.

But for Williams and dozens of other federal inmates sentenced for crimes committed in Washington, harsh justice has given way to compassion in the time of COVID-19.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, the same stern jurist who in 1995 sentenced Williams to an exceptional 1,114 months in prison, on Monday ordered Williams released rather than risk his compromised health from exposure to the novel coronavirus that is raging inside federal prisons, including Federal Detention Center-Lompoc (Calif.), where Williams was recently transferred.

Williams is one of 42 convicted federal felons in the Western District of Washington granted compassionate release from custody since March, when U.S. District Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez canceled jury trials as the dangers of the pandemic became clear. More than 200 petitions from prisoners seeking compassionate release have been filed, the judge said Wednesday, with more being brought almost every day.

"There has been a huge uptick," Martinez said in an interview. "And I don't blame a single one of those people. If I was locked in a facility where everyone around me is sick, I'd want out, too."

COVID-19 has ravaged the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which reported 5,870 inmates sick with the coronavirus, including 222 positive cases at Federal Detention Center-SeaTac, ranking fifth in infections among the nation's 122 federal prisons and detention centers, according to the bureau. Martinez said more than 136 inmates have recovered.

The numbers of inmates seeking early release, in Washington and elsewhere, is only expected to increase, said Martinez. In an order issued Dec. 30, the judge extended courthouse closures and postponed all jury trials through March 31 — almost a full year since he first halted in-person hearings.

Cases continue to pile up, and Martinez has prioritized pretrial criminal proceedings.

Since almost 97% of federal criminal cases filed in the district resolve before trial, one of the pinch points in the system has been sentencings. Those hearings can be involved and require significant resources from the court and U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services, where Martinez said caseloads have seen sharp increases. There are 122 sentencings pending in Western Washington, he said.

"These delays are causing issues all up and down the line," Martinez said.

That was clear during a criminal status conference before U.S. District Judge James Robart last week, where defense attorneys inquired about a anticipated rulings on a string of pretrial motions that had been pending since early November.

Robart urged patience, telling the attorneys their matter was "on deck," but that he and his clerks had been preoccupied with a flood of compassionate release petitions. Martinez said every judge in the district has been struggling with these cases, which had been rare — and rarely granted — before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Federal Public Defender Mike Filipovic, whose office is handling virtually all of the petitions, praised the program for saving lives and noted that, while the ability for inmates to seek compassionate release has been around for decades, it was almost never invoked. That changed in 2018 when Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which was designed to reduce federal prison populations and recidivism.

Until then, Filipovic explained, compassionate release was sought through the prison's warden. If it was denied, then there were few avenues for an inmate to pursue. The First Step Act amended the law to allow inmates to appeal a denial directly to the federal courts. While it was passed before COVID-19 emerged, it has proven a godsend for elderly inmates and those with health problems that would make them vulnerable to the disease.

To win compassionate release, an inmate must "demonstrate extraordinary and compelling reasons justifying his release." The process also involves the court weighing public safety against an inmate's health and circumstances — for example, if they're being held in a facility where COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff are prevalent.

In a number of those cases, such as Williams, the prolific bank robber, federal prosecutors have joined with the inmate in asking the court for early release. In his case, the U.S. Attorney's Office not only agreed that Williams' "very poor health," two suicide attempts and an otherwise spotless prison discipline record made him eligible for early release, but that his original sentence, issued under now abandoned federal guidelines, was draconian.

Modern-day Bonnie and Clyde

According to news reports at the time, Williams and his wife were something of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, ranging from Texas to Seattle, robbing a total of 56 banks (including four on the Eastside) with a haul of more than $879,000. They used the money to support a modestly flamboyant lifestyle — nice cars, clothes, good cigars and restaurants — but nothing so ostentatious as to attract attention. During his spare time, Williams was a competitive bowler, and took a bowling ball on his "business trips," according to news accounts.

The FBI has long given serial bank robbers nicknames, and Williams became known as "The Shootist" for his M.O. of entering a bank, jumping on a counter and firing a single gunshot into the ceiling. Once, in Texas, he claimed his gun went off accidentally and he shot a bank manager in the leg, according to court filings and news accounts. After clearing out teller drawers, Williams would flee to a hidden, waiting getaway car, driven by his wife, Carol, jump in the trunk and off they'd go.

He and Carol settled in Washington at some point, attracted by the state's beauty, the availability of shopping — he favored Nordstrom — and coffee; both he and Carol had a penchant for Starbucks. They were arrested at their home in Bothell in 1994 after the FBI received a tip; Williams blamed a friend for the betrayal.

He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and five counts of armed robbery and under guidelines in place at the time, Zilly imposed a 92-year sentence. Carol also pleaded guilty to robbery and conspiracy charges. She was released in 2011, according to the court docket.

The U.S. Attorney's Office notes that, under current sentencing structures, Williams would have received a 31-year sentence for the same crimes. Given that he's already served that amount of time, the court agreed Monday that he should be released for time served. Zilly ordered Williams to quarantine for two weeks before he's placed in a group home. He will remain on probation.

Zilly rejected a motion to discharge $875,000 in restitution imposed by the court — Williams is still expected to pay back what he stole.

Tough decisions for judges

A large majority of the petitions are denied, although an inmate can file more than once.

In October, Judge Robart rejected a plea for compassionate release filed by Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, who is serving an 18-year sentence for a plot to kill service members and government employees at a Military Entrance Processing Station in 2011, stating that he had already tested positive for the coronavirus and that he posed a threat to the community.

Last month, Martinez granted compassionate release to Dennis Gibb, a 73-year-old former Redmond investment adviser whom the judge had in June 2019 sentenced to five years in prison for bilking 15 investors, including some family members, out of more than $3 million.

Gibb suffers from health issues that make him vulnerable to the coronavirus and he asked the court to be released. While deciding the case, Martinez said he was flashing back to the courtroom during Gibb's emotional sentencing hearing and the faces of the victims who testified about how Gibb had stolen their savings and futures.

Initially, Martinez rejected the motion for compassionate release, filed in July, just 13 months after Gibb was sentenced. However, the judge reconsidered after the court was provided additional information about Gibb's serious health problems and a detailed plan on where he would be staying after he got out. Gibb was released in November, 17 months into a five-year sentence.

"As judges, we are all facing these kinds of decisions. Every one of us has had to make a tough call," Martinez said. "When I impose a five-year sentence, I don't intend it to be a death sentence."


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