A 72-year-old Spokane man who was jailed for almost 1,000 days while awaiting trial pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was sentenced to 63 months in prison Friday, but he plans to sue Spokane County for violating his civil rights once he’s released.
William Mitchell was first booked into Spokane County jail on Jan. 25, 2017, on charges of first-degree robbery and second-degree assault. He was accused of being the getaway driver after Joseph Burnett, 32, stole a drone from a Walmart customer in the store’s parking lot. A victim of the robbery jumped onto Mitchell’s car and banged his shins as he drove away.
A victim’s statement read by the prosecution recounted how a small child was in the same shopping cart as the drone, and the mother initially moved to protect her child. The father said he was unable to make eye contact with Mitchell while he was on the hood of his car.
Mitchell said he takes responsibility for his actions but did not plan to rob anyone. He agreed to give Burnett a ride that day, and he supplied Mitchell with drugs and alcohol.
Mitchell said he panicked when Burnett yelled at him to “Go! Go! Go!” and never saw what was stolen before Burnett jumped out of the car after a few blocks.
“It all started over pulling a favor for somebody,” Mitchell told The Spokesman-Review during an interview in jail.
Burnett “got me so high I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
Four public defenders represented Mitchell throughout the course of his case, and his hearings were delayed more than 20 times. He made handwritten pleas to have his case heard, but remained jailed.
The high turnover that delayed his case prompted a review of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office.
Burnett pleaded guilty to second-degree theft and second-degree robbery and was sentenced to more than five years in prison in May 2018.
Mitchell said he was denied a speedy trial and effective legal counsel.
“They really did do me wrong,” Mitchell said. “And they shouldn’t be able to do that to anybody else.”
Before he was offered a plea bargain, he said he informed court officials that he was prepared to file a writ of habeas corpus, which is used to to determine if a person’s detention is lawful, and contact the news media.
Mitchell was then presented with a plea deal about two months ago, he said, while represented by his first public defender, Todd Porter. The deal reduced his charge to second-degree robbery.
“I jumped on that deal. I would have been a fool not to,” Mitchell said. “I just got so scared because they were going to try me for three strikes.”
Because Mitchell has a bank robbery conviction from 1972 and a past conviction for second-degree robbery, a third strike conviction could have put him in prison for the rest of his life. Mitchell said he feared a jury would hold his criminal history against him in a trial.
“Just because I got a past record doesn’t mean I’m guilty of everything that happens,” Mitchell said. “I would’ve taken it to trial if I had someone that would really push.”
Mitchell will get credit for the nearly 33 months he spent in jail for his 63-month sentence, which is the minimum length in light of his criminal history. Mitchell could be released as soon as next summer with good behavior.
“I’m tired. I’ve been in this county jail so long,” he said. “(I’d take) anything that gets me out of this jail.”
Court Commissioner John Stine said he was not giving Mitchell the minimum sentence out of sympathy, but because of his age and failing health.
“You’re a lifelong criminal,” Stine said.
Mitchell’s wife of about 33 years, Gloria Mitchell, 75, said she looks forward to his release.
“I can’t wait for him to get home,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff we need to do together.”
She said she will support Mitchell’s lawsuit, because she believes his time waiting in jail was an injustice.
“I’m going put it out there so this doesn’t happen to somebody else,” Mitchell said.