Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell came before the Edmonds Diversity Commission Wednesday night to defend the decision of his office not to charge a Lynnwood woman with malicious harassment in connection with racially motivated threats involving two African American teenagers outside Edmonds’ Harvey’s Lounge.
Police charging documents filed with the prosecutor’s office following the Feb. 4, 2018 incident included a statement by one of the victims, an 18-year-old man — who said he feared for his safety after a woman carrying a baseball bat threatened him and his 14-year-old sister, using a racial slur.
The two teens told police that they were taking pictures for a school project in the parking lot outside the Jack in the Box, located next door to Harvey’s in the 21100 block of Highway 99, when a man came out of the bar and told them to leave. The older teen discovered later that his wallet was missing and so he returned to look for it. He said he then saw a woman appear outside Harvey’s holding a baseball bat, and heard her say to him and his sister, “We want you n-word off the property.”
Cornell, who lives in Edmonds and was elected as Snohomish County Prosecutor a year ago, said that the Edmonds police investigation — which included both witness statements and extensive video footage from Harvey’s — did indicate the woman — a Harvey’s employee — was holding a bat and that she did direct racial slurs at the teens. However, the bat “was not brandished in a threatening way,” Cornell said. “And the video proves that.”
“In this case there were insufficient facts for my office to charge the suspect with the crime of malicious harassment,” Cornell said. However, declining to file charges “in no way endorses the vile and shameful words that were uttered by this person,” he added. “This language has no place in a civil society. But the law does not allow me, under the specific facts of this case, to charge this person for their vile and shameful words because the words and the actions did not constitute a true threat under the law. It is not against the law for a person to utter vile and shameful things absent a true threat.”
Cornell also said that Edmonds police “did a fine investigation. It would be unfair for the community to think that the police in this matter didn’t do everything that they possibly could have.” While there was probable cause for referral of charges to the prosecutors office — which police did — prosecutors “have to believe there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard in the law,” he said.
Edmonds Diversity Commissioner Donnie Griffin challenged the decision of the prosecutor’s office, stating he believes “there are a couple of things that don’t square up.” One was the lack of the response to citizens’ inquiries regarding the status of the investigation. “Seems to be poor communication,” Griffin said. “What’s most important when these things happen is that we hear from the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
The second issue, Griffin said, is whether the police “dropped the ball in their investigation.”
“Either the police department didn’t do a very good job with their investigation and (didn’t) bring a case to you that is winnable, or maybe it’s not a priority,” Griffin said.
Cornell replied that “there wasn’t anything else that police could have done.” Video obtained by police was “crystal clear as far as showing our inability to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cornell said. “We can’t make up the facts. We had everything we needed to make a decision, and it was the right decision.”
The decision not to file charges in the Harvey’s case was made “a long time ago,” Cornell said, but he added that his office doesn’t send out press releases about those decisions. He agreed to come to Wednesday night’s meeting to speak about the issue when the commission inquired earlier this fall about the status of the Harvey’s incident.
Commissioner Mindy Woods asked Cornell why — if the woman was holding a bat and using racial slurs in “a threatening manner” — the case didn’t qualify as a hate crime.
“It doesn’t rise to the level of a prosecutor being able to prove that crime beyond a reasonable doubt based on facts,” Cornell replied. “It just doesn’t.”
“I know you’re all disappointed in this decision and I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” Cornell continued. “But if some day the shoe was on the other foot and somebody wanted me to charge somebody where we didn’t have enough evidence, you would demand that that person not be charged. We don’t pick our causes. We make our decisions based on the facts and the law. And we should not want to live in a society that is any different.”
The mother of the two teens involved in the Harvey’s incident — Darnesha Weary of Edmonds — was present to hear Cornell’s presentation. Commissioner Sarah Mixson nodded to Weary when she asked Cornell if the prosecutor’s office has a policy of informing those involved in such incidents regarding their charging decisions. Cornell replied it was his understanding that an assigned victim advocate from his office “reached out to the family” regarding the decision, but Weary responded that she never heard from anyone.
“That was not information that was provided to me,” replied Cornell, who added that if Weary or other family members weren’t informed, “that’s a miss on my office’s part clearly.”
Commissioner Maria Montalvo said the Harvey’s situation is a good reminder of the work that the Edmonds Diversity Commission can do in the future, such as having an “official channel” open to the prosecutor’s office to monitor charging decisions and to ensure that a victim’s advocate is assigned in similar cases so that followup occurs.
— Story and photo by Teresa Wippel