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Originally published January 2, 2011 at 5:19 PM | Page modified January 2, 2011 at 11:43 PM

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Parole board to discuss release date for killer convicted in 22-year-old cold case

John Nicholas Athan, the former Seattle man convicted of a 22-year-old murder after he unwittingly gave police a DNA sample by licking an envelope, will appear before the state parole board to discuss his possible release from prison.

Seattle Times staff reporter

John Nicholas Athan, the former Seattle man convicted of a 22-year-old murder after he unwittingly gave police a DNA sample by licking an envelope, will appear before the state parole board next week to discuss his possible release from prison.

When Athan appears Jan. 11 before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, also known as the parole board, victim Kristen Sumstad's family and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg will be objecting to his early release from custody.

Because Athan was sentenced under the state's old sentencing guidelines, the exact length of his prison term is up to the board. The board will consider the crime he committed, his behavior in prison and his prior history, as well as hear from Athan directly, when deciding on when he should be freed.

Athan's appearance before the parole board will be his second since his conviction in 2004.

Robin Riley, a board spokeswoman, said Athan had his first parole hearing in December 2009 and was "found not parolable."

According to board member Lynne DeLano, when Athan last appeared before the board he was told that his parole was being denied until after he obtained treatment for drug and alcohol substance-abuse issues he had before going to prison.

DeLano said that if the board finds that he has sought that treatment and meets their standards he could be released from prison as early as 120 days after the hearing.

Satterberg, in a letter to the board regarding Athan's upcoming appearance, said that Athan was sentenced to serve a maximum term of 20 years in prison, with credit for the nearly nine months he previously served in county jail. Satterberg said "a sentence of only seven years for this murder cannot be justified to the public."

Athan was 14 when authorities say he strangled his 13-year-old neighbor. The girl's half-nude body was found on Nov. 12, 1982, inside a cardboard box behind a television-repair shop in the Magnolia neighborhood where the teens lived.

Athan was considered a suspect from the beginning because he was seen pushing a cart with a large cardboard box the night of Sumstad's death. He told police he had been using the cart to scavenge firewood from the neighborhood. For 20 years there wasn't enough physical evidence to link Athan to the crime.

Twenty-one years after Sumstad's body was found, Athan was arrested in New Jersey in her slaying.

Seattle police investigators had connected Athan to the cold case using a ruse that sparked national headlines in a controversy over privacy rights.

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Police posed as members of a fictitious law firm when they sent a letter to Athan inviting him to join a class-action lawsuit for overpaid parking tickets. After Athan licked an envelope they mailed to him and sent it back, his DNA was matched to a sample that had been recovered from Sumstad's body.

During Athan's trial, defense lawyer John Muenster said that his client's DNA would be found on the girl because the two teens had sex. According to prosecutors, Athan was a friend of one of Sumstad's older sisters.

Throughout Athan's trial Muenster argued that the DNA evidence was obtained illegally by detectives posing as lawyers. In May 2007, the state Supreme Court found that police did not violate Athan's constitutional rights by concocting the ruse.

"No recognized privacy interest exists in voluntarily discarded saliva," the court wrote in its ruling. The court raised some concerns about the police tactics but said none was serious enough to require dismissal of the case.

Bill Sumstad, the slain girl's cousin, said that he can't understand why the parole board would consider freeing Athan so quickly after his conviction.

"It's just putting us through hell. When we went to trial it was 10 years minimum and 20 years maximum, I can't understand why they're doing this — why is he up for parole?" said Sumstad, 61, of East King County.

Sumstad said that he doesn't know Athan but said that his brother remembers seeing the teen at their cousin's funeral.

Sumstad said he plans to call the parole board in the coming days to tell them that he objects to Athan being released. He said that when he learned in 2009 that Athan would be appearing before the board, he called the board in opposition.

"I can't sleep sometimes thinking what she went through. She was a shy little girl," Sumstad said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included

in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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