The size of Kevin Estes’ knife mattered when he was on trial for injuring another man’s pinky finger.
It mattered a lot.
But neither Estes nor his attorney seemed to realize that until they were blindsided by Estes’ sentence of life without parole.
That’s a problem, the state Supreme Court said Thursday, because what can and can’t get someone a life sentence is the sort of thing an attorney ought to know.
The high court overturned Estes’ convictions and ordered that the 53-year-old get a new trial, because he might have agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges or argued differently at trial if his lawyer had understood and communicated the risk of such a severe sentence.
“It is reasonably probable that had Estes known that there was a much higher chance that he would be spending life in prison, the result of the proceeding would have differed,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion, signed by five other justices.
Estes’ trouble started Feb. 19, 2014, as he was playing video games and drinking alcohol at a friend’s Puyallup apartment. At some point, he started talking about the breasts of the friend’s roommate’s girlfriend.
Those comments sparked a physical struggle, and Estes allegedly pulled out a knife. The victim was cut as the men wrestled, court records show.
Estes already had two strikes going into the trial under the state’s three-strikes law, which meant mandatory life without parole if he was convicted of second-degree assault for the attack. He had prior convictions for assault and for manslaughter in the death of 29-year-old Duff Michael Farley, who was shot during an argument in 1990 in Parkland.
His attorney knew that but thought Estes dodged a third strike when the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of third-degree assault, records show.
But then the prosecutor said differently.
The exchange after the jury’s verdict went like this, according to court records:
“As the court is aware, this is a third-strike case ...,” the prosecutor said.
“He wasn’t convicted of a strike offense,” Estes’ attorney interrupted.
“Apparently, the defendant is a third-strike case because of the deadly weapon enhancements, so there’s no issue as to the sentencing,” the prosecutor explained.
The jury convicted him of third-degree assault and felony harassment, which by itself wouldn’t count as a third strike. But jurors also found that Estes committed those crimes while armed with a deadly weapon, which did qualify him for a mandatory life sentence.
That’s what Estes’ attorney missed, records show.
Realizing his mistake, he fought after the trial to have the deadly weapons enhancements dismissed. Part of his argument was that the knife police found in Estes’ pocket wasn’t a deadly weapon, because it wasn’t more than 3 inches long.
But the argument came too late, and the attorney’s errors violated Estes’ constitutional right to effective assistance of council, the Supreme Court said in its Thursday ruling.
“Attorneys may be momentarily confused about many things: the proper page number of a citation, the name of a case cited in a brief, the age of a party,” Owens wrote. “Momentary confusion about an essential point of law — whether or not a client was convicted of a third strike — is far less likely.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote that a plea agreement to avoid the life sentence didn’t seem likely, even if Estes had had all the facts.
But the outcome of the case might have been different had Estes’ attorney argued at trial about the length of the knife police found, Gonzalez said.
“Because defense counsel did not realize the deadly weapon enhancement would elevate a felony conviction to a strike offense, defense counsel did not challenge the state’s assertion that the blade was over 3 inches long,” Gonzalez wrote in the opinion, signed by justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Barbara Madsen. “Had counsel so argued, there is a reasonable probability the jury would not have entered that deadly weapon finding ... .”
Setting aside the lawyer’s mistake, is it strange that a pinky injury could send someone to prison for life?
Superior Court Judge Phil Sorensen seemed to think so when he sentenced Estes, according to court records.
“I will just say that ... this is not the kind of strike that we typically would be looking for as a community to be a third strike,” he said.