Washington state is reeling from the latest disclosure by the Department of Corrections: Thousands of prisoners have been released ahead of schedule since 2002, yet when corrections officials discovered the problem three years ago they failed to fix it.
This follows the furor of last fall, when the department transferred Gary Ridgway, the notorious Green River Killer, from solitary confinement at Walla Walla to a less-secure prison in Colorado, where he might mingle with other prisoners and presumably have a more pleasant experience.
We see these incidents as part of an unfortunate pattern that has emerged in Olympia in recent years. The officials who administer criminal sentences have become indifferent to the concerns of crime victims and their families, and they have lost sight of their duty to see justice done.
Another demonstration of this insensitivity is about to play out before the state Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board. On Tuesday, the board will consider the early release of Timothy Pauley, convicted in 1981 of one of the most brutal torture-killings in Washington history. This case establishes the systemic nature of the problem – not just a lack of transparency but an unfathomable disregard for victims, the dead and the living.
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Pauley’s murder tally isn’t as long as Ridgway’s, but he is just as deserving of the sentence awarded by the court – three life sentences, two of them consecutive, the maximum punishment available at the time.
On June 12, 1980, Pauley and another man robbed the Barn Door Tavern at SeaTac. They marched two men into a cooler and bound them with wire. Pauley shot them in the head, killing them. They forced three women to strip naked and hanged one from a railing. The other two women survived, barely. One was stabbed down the chest; both were left to hang in a restroom.
The problem is that in this state, a life sentence doesn’t necessarily mean life. The review board determines release dates for criminals convicted before 1984 – some 240 at present, the worst of the worst.
Prosecutors and victims’ families have long been frustrated by the board’s lack of transparency. Hearings take place with little notice, key documents are withheld and often a public records request is required before the board divulges information about pending reviews.
Pauley’s victims and their families never understood that he had been mounting a years-long campaign for early release, until shortly before a 2014 hearing. They were allowed to testify, as the law requires. But Angie Dowell, whose father was killed and mother survived, tells us the board seemed to be “looking over our shoulders” to the clock on the wall.
Members hadn’t read the family’s letters, and they refused to look at crime-scene photos that might have conveyed the horror. The woman who owned the tavern has been writing the board for 30 years; her daughter tells us she got her first response in November.
In 2014 the board was more impressed with Pauley’s good behavior in prison and gave him a reduced minimum sentence, positioning him for early release. Pauley’s statements in letters from prison ought to cast doubt on his rehabilitation – in one he says he “can’t really argue” with those who think prison guards should be killed.
But most disturbing is the board’s obliviousness to those haunted by Pauley’s brutality. We should consider this case alongside the Ridgway affair and the administrative mismanagement that put 3,200 prisoners back on the streets. With deliberate decisions and astounding incompetence, state officials have shown that they are more interested in reducing lawful and well-deserved sentences than in ensuring that justice is served.
We should remember that justice isn’t just a matter of a fair trial. It also is a matter of fair punishment, from sentencing through incarceration.
Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, is a former King County sheriff who investigated the Barn Door Tavern murders and led the Green River Task Force. State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is a former judge and chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.