The Washington State Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that the Department of Corrections did not commit gross negligence in supervising a serial domestic abuser who murdered his girlfriend in Auburn in October 2012, two weeks after he was released from prison.
Scottye Miller, now 36, was found guilty of first-degree murder in December 2013 and was given an exceptional sentence of 50 years in prison for stabbing Tricia Patricelli, 33, more than 20 times in the apartment she shared with her two daughters, who were 10 and 13 at the time, according to court records and news reports.
Patricelli’s mother, Cathy Harper, sued the Corrections Department in 2014, alleging Miller’s community corrections officer ignored Miller’s violations of his conditions of release, made no effort to verify where he was staying and otherwise did little or nothing to supervise him.
The lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment by a King County Superior Court judge after the department successfully argued its actions did not amount to gross negligence. Harper then appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s ruling, according to Wednesday’s opinion.
The Corrections Department then appealed to the state Supreme Court for review, with all nine justices concurring with the original decision to dismiss Harper’s suit.
Harper did not return a phone call, and Christopher Carney, one of her attorneys, declined in an email to comment about the decision. A message left for a spokesman with the state Attorney General’s Office, which defended the Corrections Department the lawsuit, also did not return a call seeking comment.
In an emailed statement, agency spokesman Jeremy Barclay wrote: “The death of Ms. Patricelli represents a tragic loss for her family. The department appreciates the court’s careful analysis of the case presented and their unanimous upholding of the statutory standard of gross negligence.”
Written by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the court’s opinion notes that Patricelli lied to her mother, best friend and a Corrections Department victim liaison about her intentions of getting back together with Miller after his release from prison.
Miller and Patricelli began dating in 2009, and on different occasions he pushed her down a set of stairs, beat her with a baseball bat and repeatedly violated court orders to stay away from her, The Seattle Times reported in 2014. He punched her in the face in December 2011 and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Miller was released on Oct. 15, 2012, and killed Patricelli 15 days later. At the time, a protection order was in place barring Miller from contacting Patricelli.
A Corrections Department victim liaison spoke with Patricelli four times before Miller’s release to ensure she had a safety plan in place, and Patricelli assured the liaison she was moving to a new residence, had no interest in seeing Miller and would call the police if she did, the opinion says.
“It turns out that Miller, his mother, and Patricelli herself lied to DOC about Miller’s living arrangements while on probation, the opinion states. “In fact, Patricelli had seen Miller, even though she said she had not. And Miller was not staying with his mother, despite his mother saying, in a signed document, that he was.
“Miller was actually living with Patricelli. But the only people who knew that fact were Patricelli, her daughters, their roommate, and Miller. And all of them were actively hiding the relationship from DOC and others.”
The night before she was killed, Patricelli and her daughters slept at her mother’s house to get away from Miller, according to the opinion. She returned to her apartment the next morning and was fatally stabbed in the shower by Miller, who apparently believed Patricelli was seeing another man.
Harper later argued that the Corrections Department should have required Miller to take a polygraph test and subjected him to GPS monitoring; conducted home visits to verify his living situation and asked his mother to verbally verify he was living with her.
She also contended the agency should have arrested Miller for changing addresses without first notifying the Corrections Department, per his conditions of release; and not authorized him to live in sober housing in Auburn, the city where Patricelli had moved to, the opinion says, noting Corrections Department officials might not have known Patricelli was living in Auburn.
In the court’s legal analysis, Gordon McCloud wrote that to prove simple negligence, Harper would’ve had to show the existence of a Corrections Department duty that was then breached, causing injury to the plaintiff.
“But this is a case of gross negligence,” the opinion states. “Gross negligence most obviously differs from simple negligence in that it requires a greater breach; to prove gross negligence, Harper must show that DOC ‘substantially’ breached its duty by failing to act with even slight care.”
According to the opinion, “Harper failed to provide substantial evidence demonstrating that DOC exercised substantially or appreciably less than that degree of care that a prudent department would have exercised in the same or similar circumstances.”