Washington Supreme Court Declines Broad Review of Three-Strikes Law, But Signals Approval to Resentence One Prisoner


Washington's Supreme Court has signaled approval of resentencing a three-strikes prisoner serving a life sentence after robbing a Snohomish County 7-Eleven store, even though the court declined a broader constitutional review that could have freed dozens of people sentenced under the state's three-strikes law.

"I absolutely am so excited I can barely contain myself," wrote Lawrence Fillion, the prisoner who petitioned the court, in an email. With resentencing scheduled for Feb. 24 in Snohomish County Superior Court, he is likely to be released after serving 24 years.

Prosecutors have debated the legality of resentencing three-strikes prisoners after the Legislature passed a bill last year allowing them to seek judicial action when an original sentence "no longer advances the interests of justice."

Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said it was aimedm in partm at addressing a sentencing discrepancy that arose the previous year when lawmakers dropped second-degree robbery — usually committed without a weapon or causing physical injury — from the list of possible strikes but did not make the law retroactive. At the time, 64 people with second-degree robbery strikes, including Fillion, were left serving life sentences.

Some prosecutors have said they are bound by the law in effect at the time of the crime and cannot — or should not, given accountability owed victims — try to undo three-strikes and other mandatory sentences.

The debate has come as lawmakers, prosecutors and others are rethinking the tough-on-crime ethos of past decades. Washington voters passed the three-strikes law in 1993, making it the first such law in the country and imposing life sentences to "persistent offenders" who commit a broad array of crimes, from robbery to assault to murder.

While Fillion and many three-strikes prisoners are white, Black people account for 38% of such prisoners but only about 4% of the state's population — a startling disproportionality amid intensifying calls for racial equity in criminal justice after the police killing of George Floyd.

Fillion argued in legal papers that his continued imprisonment, in light of the way second-degree robbery is now treated, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates the constitutional right to equal protection.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell agreed, referring to an "evolving standard of decency" placing more emphasis on mercy and rehabilitation. He told the court he would not fight Fillion's motion for review.

Cornell did not, however, believe resentencing was possible — until the court, in a brief order earlier last month, said it would not review the case because Fillion could be resentenced.

Cornell said he now believes resentencing is permissible in cases similar to Fillion's, where a second-degree robbery strike is involved. He added other prosecutors may have different interpretations, although a bill filed in Olympia would give them no choice. Sponsored by Tacoma Democrat Sen. Jeannie Darneille, Senate Bill 5164 would compel resentencing in three-strikes cases involving a second-degree robbery.

As for Fillion, Cornell said immediately after the Supreme Court's order he would seek resentencing "as soon as we can make it happen," eventually getting the court date this month. Because the standard maximum sentence for second-degree robbery is now 10 years, the prosecutor said he expects Fillion to be released with time served.

Fillion was 23 when he robbed the 7-Eleven with three friends, one of whom said he had a gun, according to legal papers. Fillion made threatening gestures, a clerk testified, and grabbed beer and cigarettes. He had previously been convicted of another second-degree robbery and a second-degree assault.

Now 48, he said he thought he would die in prison. His mother died while he was incarcerated, he added, and he wants to finally give his father "the love he deserves," help his sister and make his family proud "instead of being an embarrassment."

Meanwhile, other efforts are afoot to review three-strikes cases. Senate Bill 5036, sponsored by Dhingra, would give prisoners with a second-degree robbery strike priority before an expanded state Clemency & Pardons Board.

And some prosecutors are backing select clemency petitions. Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett did so for Marcus Price, sentenced to life in 1995 under three strikes for crimes that were all robberies or attempted robbery.

In January, Gov. Jay Inslee granted Price clemency.

"Wow, it feels somewhat surreal. I still don't believe it's truly happening," wrote Price, 53, in an email, saying he felt "excited, anxious, appreciative, apprehensive," and "nervous."