On Wednesday afternoon, Thomas Butler, 39, looked Spokane County Superior Court Judge Julie McKay in the eye and told her how much he has changed in his 13 years in prison.
It’s not just his actions that have changed, Butler said, it’s his heart, his identity. He found God and “I’ve been a completely different person ever since,” Butler said.
But it was a new state law, not Butler’s stated remorse or new identity, that McKay cited as reasoning when sentencing him to 30 years in prison down from life without the possibility of parole.
In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill that removed second-degree robbery from the “three-strike” statute. The persistent offender statute mandates a life sentence without the possibility of parole for people convicted of three serious felony crimes.
Butler was classified as a persistent offender after he was convicted of six felonies related to a 2009 home invasion.
The case began when Butler forced his way into a home at 4113 E. 16th Ave., on March 20, 2009, where three Eastern Washington University seniors lived. One of the residents shot Butler three times, leaving him with lifelong serious health issues.
A jury convicted Butler of first-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery, first-degree robbery and two counts of first-degree assault. He was acquitted of two counts of first-degree robbery.
Five of those convictions carried a firearms enhancement, which punishes a defendant for using a gun while committing a crime and adds additional prison time to a sentence.
Butler already had two prior serious felony convictions, residential burglary in 2001 and second-degree robbery in 2002. Those convictions combined with the 2009 convictions made him a persistent offender, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
After the 2019 law removed his 2001 conviction from the list of “three-strike” crimes, he returned to Spokane for resentencing.
Sharon Hedlund, Spokane County deputy prosecuting attorney, asked the court to sentence Butler to the low end of his sentencing range of 62 to 72 years, effectively another life sentence. The sentencing range for Butler’s underlying crimes was 32 to 42 years, with 30 years added on for the firearms enhancements.
According to prosecutors, the three victims of the crime were comfortable with Butler being sentenced within the standard range.
Butler’s attorney, Steve Graham, asked the court to remove Prosecutor Larry Haskell from the case because of the racist comments made by Haskell’s wife, Lesley Haskell, as well as racial disparities in charging. McKay rejected the request.
Graham also asked McKay to deviate from the standard range sentence and make the firearms enhancements run concurrently, for a total sentence of 20 years.
McKay said she believed it wasn’t the Legislature’s intent to overturn a “three-strike” life sentence only for judges to be required to effectively sentence defendants to life again.
She deviated from the standard sentencing range by sentencing Butler to two years for each of the underlying crimes, far below the crime’s standard sentencing ranges. Butler will serve those sentences at the same time.
Butler was then sentenced to 30 years for the firearm enhancements. McKay again deviated from the standard sentencing protocol to allow Butler to serve the two-year sentence and the 30-year sentence at the same time, for a total of 30 years in prison.
By deviating from the standard range, the sentence is open to appeal from prosecutors.
When McKay announced the sentence, Butler’s family and friends in the courtroom began to cry and smile.
Butler’s sister was particularly tearful.
“Hey, hold it together, man, this is good,” Butler told his sister with a smile.
After the hearing, Graham said he’s “relieved” by the sentence. Preston McCollam, deputy prosecuting attorney, was unsure whether the state plans to appeal the sentence.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Preston McCollam’s name.
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