Can I Sue Washington State for Murder Committed by a Parolee?
The criminal justice system is meant to keep the public safe by locking away dangerous individuals who commit horrific crimes such as murder and rape. In Washington State, the maximum sentence allowed for the worst capital crimes is life in prison since the death penalty was abolished in 2018.
A life sentence means the state must provide life’s essentials for incarcerated individuals, including food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. A lifetime of care costs a lot of money — over $42,000 a year per inmate with increases annually. That’s expensive, so the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) lowers costs by returning incarcerated individuals to the community with the promise of closely monitoring them to ensure they do not commit any more crimes.
Unfortunately, the parole system does not have a great track record. Nearly 75% of incarcerated individuals are arrested again within five years of leaving prison, and over half end up reincarcerated. Many of these parolees return to incarceration because of parole violations, such as missed check-ins with parole officers or failure to pass drug tests. Some return for more serious offenses, including violent crimes, such as murder.
There have been numerous instances of innocent members of the community being murdered by parolees, and Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala has extensive experience helping the families of wrongful death victims seek justice from a system that failed to keep their loved ones safe.
Can I sue the State of Washington if a parolee kills my loved one?
If a parolee who is under supervision by the state kills someone, the family members of the murder victim can sue the government entity that was charged with supervising that individual. In Washington, that government entity is the Department of Corrections (DOC). Wrongful death lawsuits are often filed by the estate of the murder victim, which is the legal entity that represents that person. The estate will also represent the interests of the person’s beneficiaries. Beneficiaries could be people who were financially dependent on the person who died, such as children. However, there are many cases where the estate represents other close loved ones, such as a spouse or the parents of underage victims.
For example, in the 1990s, the DOC released a convict despite his long criminal and psychiatric record who then murdered a 17-year-old girl. Filing as the girl’s estate, her parents sued the state, represented by PCVA partner Darrell Cochran. The legal team won a $6.3 million verdict after a jury found the state acted negligently by releasing the murderer from prison and failing to supervise him properly. Cochran and his team investigated the parole officer and found numerous egregious examples of negligence.
How is the state responsible for a parolee’s actions?
When an inmate is released from prison on parole, the DOC board will assign a parole officer to supervise the parolee and ensure the person reintegrates into society without reoffending. The DOC handles an active caseload of about 18,000 parolees in the state. This system relies heavily on the integrity, work ethic, and motivation of individual parole officers to make sure parolees follow their release orders.
The parole officer acts as an agent of the state and can be named individually in a lawsuit. If a parolee kills someone while under supervision, the attorney representing the estate of the murder victim will need to prove how the parole officer, and therefore the DOC, were negligent in properly supervising the individual. This negligence can include failing to follow parole orders.
Parole orders frequently include:
- regular visits, meetings, and check-ins with parole officers
- periodic drug and alcohol testing
- electronic monitoring
- travel restrictions
- counseling or therapy
Things aren’t always as they appear on the surface. Sometimes documents will show that parole officers did everything correctly in supervising parolees. While these documents may be accurate, there may be inconsistencies with what really happened. When working on a wrongful death case, the attorneys at PCVA conduct an extensive investigation to dig deeper and uncover any negligence that led to murder.
In another example, in the 1990s, a state-supervised former inmate murdered an elderly woman in Tacoma. Cochran sued on behalf of the woman’s estate. On paper, the parole officers appeared to have supervised the killer properly, but Cochran conducted an extensive investigation that revealed severe negligence. After identifying several unsolved murders in the area, Cochran discovered that the parole officers did not conduct home visits as they reported. Not only did Cochran win a $15.3 million jury verdict for the estate, but he turned his work over to police who used it as a basis to prosecute and successfully convict the killer for one of the unsolved murders.
What happens if I want to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the Washington DOC for my loved one’s murder by a parolee?
The Washington DOC has the weight and resources of the state behind it, so it’s crucial to contact an attorney who is experienced in investigating and winning these kinds of wrongful death cases. The attorney will begin by talking with you to assess the case. Once formally retained, the attorney will begin an exhaustive investigation.
These cases often go all the way to jury trial, and the attorney will need to prove to the jury that the DOC was negligent in releasing the parolee and not properly supervising him or her. This thorough investigation will include several elements, including:
- The parolee’s sentencing and release orders
- Testimony from witnesses, including the perpetrator
- All relevant supervision and incarceration documents
- The parole officer’s personnel records and details of the hiring process
- Any relevant medical, psychiatric, and police records
- Data from devices, such as electronic monitoring bracelets
- Expert testimony
The investigation and discovery process are extensive and time-consuming, which is why it’s critical to hire attorneys with the experience and resources needed to investigate thoroughly, retain the best experts, and commit to taking the case all the way to a jury.
PCVA’s attorneys have decades of experience winning wrongful death victories against the DOC, including some of the earliest Supreme Court and Appellate Court cases in the State of Washington. The team has achieved numerous jury awards and settlements for the loved ones of victims murdered by dangerous individuals who were irresponsibly released into the community and carelessly supervised.
No amount of money can ever make up for the trauma and loss caused by murder, but you can send a clear message to the state that negligence leading to tragedy is much more expensive than housing and feeding dangerous prisoners for life. If you would like to discuss your case, speak with a lawyer for free by completing our online form or calling us at (253) 948-3199 or (206) 536-2850. All conversations are confidential.
How much do you charge?
Our work is done on a contingency basis. This means that you do not pay us on an hourly basis, and we advance the costs of litigation. If we help you resolve your case, we receive a percentage of the amount you receive, and you reimburse us for the costs we advanced on your behalf.