Politics & Government

Former Justice Robert Utter dies at 84; he took a principled stand against death penalty

Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter, who had resigned in 1995 in protest of the court’s handling of death penalty cases, died late Wednesday at the age of 84.

The Administrative Office of the Courts announced the death, and a public service is planned Nov. 8 at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.

Utter served on the court for 23 years and in retirement had worked with his wife, Betty, in Rwanda on a University of Washington project that dealt with how courts approached justice in the aftermath of genocide that took 800,000 lives in a 100-day fury of ethnic murders by Hutus and Tutsis in that African state in 1994.

“One of the things about my dad is, he was a humanitarian through and through — including with his family,” son John Utter said Thursday. “He certainly never gave up on us. I think he showed that in his life — he never gave up on people. He created a lot of deep friendships that way and inspired a lot of people.’’

In an interview published in this newspaper in February, Utter talked about his feelings of profound relief that Gov. Jay Inslee this year had issued a moratorium on executions through the remainder of his term, which runs to January 2017. Utter had resigned in a protest of what he thought was a consistent failure of the court in that era to adequately consider proportionality in weighing capital sentences.

At the time of the interview, Utter was on hospice, living in the Budd Inlet home he shared with his wife. His cancer had metastasized, and he also had Parkinson’s disease. He was asked what he hoped history would remember him for, and in remarks not published at the time, he said:

“I think it is the consistent effort to provide the opportunity for every individual to utilize their capacity as a human being. And the effort that society places into the life of every person — the ability to utilize those gifts that we all have and to share them with others.”

Utter indicated his remarks were in part a reference to work he’d done to launch a Big Brothers and Sisters organization, but which also extended to his Rwanda work where he saw people learning to live side by side with people who had killed their relatives.

“The thing I think of — I’m looking for a thread — is my belief that the actions of ordinary people to show love and forgiveness and charity can truly affect people’s lives,’’ Utter said.

Utter had co-founded the Seattle chapter of Big Brothers in 1958, the state’s first, according to an in-depth piece about Utter by former newspaper editor John Hughes for the state’s Legacy Project. The project collects oral histories of leading state political and historical figures. Hughes wrote that Utter was “a tireless mentor” and also “helped launched a Thurston-Mason chapter in 1982 and played a key role in the YMCA’s Youth & Government program, which in 1997 named its top award in his honor.”

Utter was promoted from the Court of Appeals to the high court in 1971 by then-Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican. While on the bench, Utter broke ground, including an opinion in 1978 that established a battered woman’s right to self-defense. After leaving the court, he led a King County task force in 1997 that led to therapeutic courts that focused on mental health.

In a news release, the Supreme Court quoted Associate Justice Charles Johnson, who served with Utter from 1991 to 1995. “Sadly, this state has lost a champion for justice,” Johnson said. “Justice Utter will be remembered as a strong proponent of protecting individual rights and for establishing a foundation for basic fairness and equal treatment for all, principles that continue to guide judicial decisions and administration of the justice system today.”

In his profile of the justice, Hughes quotes former justice Richard Sanders summing up Utter’s legacy:

“Utter always seemed to be the judge’s judge,” Sanders says. “Ultimately, he resigned because of his abhorrence of the death penalty. That’s the kind of justice we need — someone who really cares about this stuff. Now, in retirement, he’s been all over the world promoting a vigorous independent judiciary. It’s a privilege to sit in the same chair where he once sat.”

Utter is survived by his wife, Betty; three adult children, John, Kirk and Kimberly; and four grandchildren. The public remembrance is scheduled for 1 p.m. at South Puget Sound’s Minnaert Center on Saturday, Nov. 8.