Nate Sanders and his family worked hard over the years to find a way to reduce his 33-year sentence. He sought clemency. He tried to take advantage of a new law that enabled a prosecutor to seek a resentencing if the sentence by today’s standards was extreme. “I fit it to a tee,” he said. He was crushed by the prosecutor’s refusal.
By the time the State Supreme Court handed down its decision in Washington v. Blake, “I had given up,” he said. “I was done.”
But another person in prison – someone Sanders called a “legal beagle” – thought Blake could help. “This is going to send you home, brother,” he told him. A few days later, when Sanders wasn’t looking, his friend managed to grab Sanders’ legal papers from his cell and submit his case number to the King County Department of Public Defense.
What happened next stunned Sanders. Out of the blue, he received a letter from Sarra Marie, an attorney at the Department of Public Defense, saying she was taking his case. With support from Pamela Diaz-Medrano, a paralegal, Marie filed a brief, requested a hearing, and ultimately obtained a signed order from a judge amending his judgment and sentence. Twenty-six years after he was sent to prison and four years before his scheduled release date, Nate Sanders was a free man.
On July 15, he walked into his mother’s home in Duvall, holding a bouquet of flowers. Nearly 90 and limited by dementia, she looked at him in bewilderment. “‘Is it my birthday?’ she asked,” Sanders recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, Mama, it’s your birthday, and it’s Christmas, and it’s Mother’s Day.’ I’m home.”
Sanders’ story is remarkable, but he is hardly alone. Since the State Supreme Court found our state’s felony drug possession law unconstitutional in February, DPD’s attorneys have been working hard to address the consequences of these unconstitutional convictions, which have saddled thousands of people across the state with longer and harsher sentences than the law allows.
Sometimes, as in Sanders’ case, an attorney’s work results in a person’s immediate release. Scott Ketterling, an attorney at DPD who has overseen this effort, says about 30 people serving sentences made longer by King County drug convictions were eligible for immediate release.
Many others are seeing their sentences reduced, sometimes – like Sanders – by many years, evidence of just how intertwined the war on drugs is with the larger criminal court system. Recent research shows that although Black adults comprise 7% of the population in King County, in 2019, they represented 40 percent of the individuals convicted of drug possession.
Other people are relieved of probation obligations due to Blake, which is also significant: People on probation often miss appointments, which can lead to a bench warrant for their arrest. Another group could see their convictions vacated, erasing the scarlet letter of a felony conviction from their record.
As of August, DPD attorneys had taken on 616 cases on behalf of 305 clients who are eligible for relief under Blake. Ketterling said the work is profoundly meaningful.
“It’s really rare for a caseload-carrying attorney to ever get the ability to completely disconnect a client from the system,” he said. “We do our best to be a voice for a client, but we often get to a point where we have to let go of the reins, knowing we have lessened the harm of the system but not completely freed them from it. This has been an amazing opportunity to right some of the wrongs of the drug war.”
Sarra Marie agreed. Public defense is challenging and stressful work, she said, made manageable only by successes like the one she experienced with Sanders. “It’s a rewarding part of this job when we see the impact of our work. It’s really the only way to get through the stress – to see the impact we’re having on our clients.”
Sanders said it was the war on drugs that first ensnared him in the system. He was in a house with friends when police kicked down the door, conducted a search, and found drugs hidden in the couch. Because no one took ownership of the drugs, all of them – including Sanders – were charged with felony drug possession. And it was due to drugs and a traffic stop that he got into trouble again.
Today, he’s ready to reach his full potential. He became “a follower of Christ,” as he put it, and feels a profound need to help others. Last week, he went to a homeless camp to feed people.
Sanders knows his path is still challenging. He owes nearly $250,000 in legal financial obligations and restitution. But he also feels fortunate. “I landed on a bed of roses because of my family, my friends, and my church community,” he said.
He plans to resume his trade as a heavy equipment operator and attend trucking school to obtain his commercial driver’s license. He also has a bucket list, which includes revisiting the Philippines, a country he traveled to as a young man, skydiving, digging freshwater wells in Africa, and “finding love.”
“My family has embraced me. I’m safe out here in Duvall,” he said. “Thanks to the Supreme Court and Sarra Marie, I have my life back.”