Adam Cornell reflects on 3 years as county prosecutor and his decision not to seek reelection

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell

About to embark on the last year of his four-year term as Snohomish County Prosecutor, Edmonds resident Adam Cornell announced in November that he does not plan to seek reelection to the seat he has occupied since running unopposed in 2018, leaving the field wide open. (Edmonds resident and current Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jason Cummings has already expressed his intent to run for the position).

“This isn’t the kind of job where you decide to leave and give two weeks’ notice,” Cornell said. “While I want to be sure potential candidates have enough time to think and prepare for an election campaign, more importantly I made a serious commitment to serve for four years, and that means giving my best. I fully intend to go out strong by continuing to serve the community and making a positive difference in the lives of those around me. But on Dec. 31, 2022, it will be time for me to move on and do something else.”

For now, that “something else” is yet to be decided. Cornell frankly admits that he “has not yet charted a course,” and that he feels no immediate need to do so.

“The job is incredibly intense,” he continued. “Some weeks it just seems to go on and on. I do it because I care about the work and want to be engaged in it, and that leads to a lot of 3 a.m. wakeups when I’m thinking about a problem that needs solving.

Adam Cornell greets voters at a candidate forum in the old Senior Center during his successful 2018 run for county prosecutor. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

“My three guiding principles in this job – indeed in everything I do – is to always be accessible, accountable and thoughtful,” he stressed. “These are the keys to being accountable to the community and will continue as long as I’m in the job. And there’s plenty more to be done in the year ahead, with a host of ongoing projects in place to work on.”

Facing his 50th birthday, Cornell gives the appearance of a person at the top of his game and poised to climb the ladder to further achievements and honors.  While his decision to seek another path might seem counterintuitive to some, his early life was marked by a string of challenges that shaped and molded his values, tested his inner strength, and — were he another person — might have set him on a very different path.

Born in Whatcom County, Cornell’s birth parents struggled with alcohol and drugs, and their home life was stormy and unstable. Cornell was given up for adoption at age 8, and his next few years were marked by a series of foster homes. Adopted by a single dad at age 14, Cornell attended Woodinville High School where in his senior year, in 1991, he was named National Youth of the Year for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Cornell, along with his adoptive father, flew to Washington, D.C. to be personally honored by President George H.W. Bush. The pair had barely returned home when Cornell was dealt a crushing blow, losing his adoptive father to suicide less than a month before his high school graduation.

Cornell spent the next four years at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where he graduated magna cum laude in 1995. Upon graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and served two years as a youth development volunteer in Georgetown, Guyana, where he established a program aimed at reducing recidivism and substance abuse among incarcerated youth offenders. Returning to Washington state, Cornell earned his juris doctor in 2001 from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, where he was also selected for the school’s honor society.

After law school, he was hired by Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair as a clerk in her office, where he earned a reputation as a skilled and dedicated worker with a good temperament for the job. This led to an opportunity to join the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office as a deputy prosecuting attorney, handling cases including sexual assault and violent crimes. During this time, he spent five years on loan from Snohomish County to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, where he further honed his skills prosecuting federal drug and gun trafficking cases. He describes this period as a “very special mid-career experience.”

Returning to the county in 2010, Cornell picked up where he left off as deputy prosecuting attorney. This included several high-profile cases — among them a mass shooting in Mukilteo — and put him in the middle of some controversial local cases including the “I Can’t Breathe” art defacement and the Harvey’s Tavern racism incident — both in Edmonds.

When Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe retired in 2018, Cornell ran unopposed and has been in the position ever since.

Reflecting on his time in office, Cornell said he feels that the pandemic has been the overriding factor shaping his tenure as county prosecutor.

“The pandemic has weighed heavily on my term in many different ways,” he said. “It’s created ripples both internally and externally that have made day-to-day management challenging. But on the plus side, I’m particularly proud of the leadership team I’ve created in the prosecutor’s office and the great work of the people on that team. Those leaders will continue after I’m gone and will make the community better.”

Cornell also points out that in keeping with his core values as prosecutor – accessibility, accountability and thoughtfulness – he has not shied away from controversy or the opportunity to inform citizens about the reasoning behind his decisions, several of which have drawn public fire.

Adam Cornell meets with the Edmonds Diversity Commission in the wake of his decision not to prosecute for a hate crime in the Harvey’s Tavern racism incident. (My Edmonds News file photo)

Citing his decisions to not prosecute for hate crimes — despite strong calls from many in the community to do so — in both the defacing of the I Can’t Breathe art installation and the alleged racially motivated threats in the Harvey’s Tavern case, Cornell explained that while the evidence in these cases might have provided probable cause, it was simply not strong enough to support the higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which must be there to bring charges that could lead to a conviction in court.

“To have prosecuted these for hate crimes would have been counter to the interests of justice,” he explained. “There was insufficient evidence to support hate crime charges, and I made the decision in short order. There was intense anger in some corners for not prosecuting these as hate crimes, and I stood in the face of significant criticism. But I didn’t turn turtle, I didn’t get in my shell, I made myself available to the community. Taking this kind of criticism is just part of the job. People need to know that as long as I’m in this office I’ll never charge a crime to score political points. It’s not what prosecutors do – we just don’t.”

“It was a challenging time for me,” he continued. “I tried to help the community understand the difference between probable cause and reasonable doubt.”

In contrast to these cases, Cornell cites his office’s recent hate crimes prosecution against the perpetrator in the last fall’s case involving the Edmonds Police Department’s animal control officer, where the perpetrator is alleged to have “maliciously and intentionally” threatened the officer, a Black woman, based on his perception of her race, which put her in “reasonable fear of harm.”

“It’s important that our community know that these cases get prosecuted in Edmonds and throughout Snohomish County where the facts meet the law,” he explained.

Another legal principal Cornell has stressed in meeting with citizens in controversial cases is that in the U.S. justice system, individual victims cannot bring criminal charges.

“The victim of a hate crime (or any other crime) cannot bring criminal charges,” he explained. “We have independent prosecutors for a reason. Victims can sue in civil court, but not criminal.”

Regarding his decision to move on when his term expires, Cornell cites his personal value system, much of which is rooted in his life experiences.

A marathon runner, Adam Cornell finishes strong in last summer’s Beat Brackett 4th of July run in Edmonds. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

“As a kid who grew up in the state’s foster care system, I learned to value the life I have, and to recognize that life is precious,” he explains. “These experiences taught me that life is short, nothing is guaranteed and you have to savor what you have. Sometimes people stay in a job just to be in a job, but I’ve learned along the way that my self-worth is not intrinsically tied to my job. And now I have the opportunity to retire from county service after 20 years. I believe there is a door on the other side — I’m not sure what it is or what will be behind it, but I’m certain it’s there.

“I have a year left and have every intention of going out on a high note and leave the office in better shape than when I came in,” he concluded. “I have every confidence that I’ve done this already, and every intention to move the needle in a positive direction in the coming year.”

One thing is for certain: Cornell will remain in Edmonds and be a part of the community. Active in numerous community events and causes, and with interests ranging from marathon running to bird watching, he promises to be an often-seen presence around town.

“Twenty years ago, my wife Whitney and I decided to make Edmonds our home,” he says. “The town is full of great people — it holds a special place in our hearts. We feel that we’re a part of the community, and that the community is part of us.”

— By Larry Vogel

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