Dead man appeals his murder conviction
Christopher Harrison Devlin, a convicted killer who was found dead in his cell, is appealing his case from the grave — at taxpayers' expense.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A convicted killer who committed suicide four days after he was sentenced to life in prison is appealing his case from the grave — at taxpayers' expense.
Christopher Harrison Devlin, a 57-year-old long-haul truck driver, was convicted a year ago of killing a man who had been set to testify against him in an assault trial, and was sentenced to life in prison. Devlin's attorneys immediately appealed his conviction.
But on Sept. 20, 2010, Devlin was found dead of an overdose in his Spokane County Jail cell.
Despite his death, Devlin's attorneys and his sister, who had herself appointed trustee of his estate, are moving ahead with the appeal in hopes of clearing his name. They also insist the state should pay for it because Devlin was broke when he died.
"She believed he was innocent and unless she continued his appeal, his innocence wouldn't be established," said Robert Lamp, a Spokane probate attorney who represents Leslee Devlin, of New York City. Leslee Devlin could not be reached for comment.
For nearly a century, under a common law known as abatement ab initio, convictions like Devlin's were automatically dismissed in Washington and most other states if the defendant died before sentencing or before exhausting all of his appeals. In 2006, for example, a federal judge in Texas tossed out former Enron chief Kenneth Lay's convictions for conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud because he died before sentencing.
But Gregory Link, an attorney for Devlin, contends that a recent decision by the state Supreme Court, which overruled abatement ab initio in a Seattle case, should clear the way for the appeal to move forward. And since Devlin's estate is insolvent, Link said, the appeal should be funded by the state.
On the other side is Mark Lindsey, senior deputy Spokane County prosecutor, who insists that Devlin's constitutional rights are not transferrable to another person after his death.
"The right to appeal a criminal conviction is solely for an individual," said Lindsey. He also opposes efforts to have the state pay for the appeal, which he estimates could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Lindsey has the support of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which wrote in an appellate court filing: "There is no constitutional right or statutory authority for the use of public funds to underwrite the estate's moot appeal."
Both sides have turned to the state Court of Appeals to settle the matter.
Mike Webb case
Abatement ab initio — the loose translation from Latin means to roll back a process to its beginning — was recently called into question by the state Supreme Court in an appeal involving former Seattle radio-talk-show host Mike Webb, who was killed by his roommate in 2007. At the time of his death, Webb was appealing his King County conviction for insurance fraud.
Ruling in the Webb case, the Supreme Court found that if a defendant dies while the case is on appeal, another person can be substituted in his or her place to oversee issues regarding proposed restitution and the criminal conviction itself.
But what is not completely clear is how the state should handle the cases of indigent defendants who die while their cases are on appeal, said Link, Devlin's attorney.
"I thought (the Webb case) was fairly clear: The appeal goes forward as long as someone steps forward as the substituted party," Link said. "The courts are going to have to hash out a procedure."
Lindsey, the deputy prosecutor, said the push to end the legal procedure in Washington came in part from victims-rights groups that wanted to ensure that a criminal conviction wouldn't simply vanish. Another concern is restitution, since ending abatement ab initio makes it easier for the state and survivors to go after a deceased defendant's estate for money.
Since Devlin was broke when he died, it is unlikely the state or relatives of victim Daniel Heily will be able to go after Devlin's estate for restitution.
Seattle defense attorneys Suzanne Elliott and Travis Stearns said the Devlin case demonstrates that ending abatement ab initio will do nothing to guarantee that victims will receive restitution or be made to "feel whole again" by ensuring that a criminal is punished. Instead, they said, it will cost the state more money in court proceedings.
But whether a deceased convict's estate can move forward with an appeal at the public's expense is a unique issue for state courts. The state Court of Appeals is considering the issue and has sought guidance from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the state Office of Public Defense.
Appellate judges in Spokane heard from each side earlier this month and are considering several issues, including whether another party can represent a deceased convict in an appeal. If so, will the state continue to pay for that appeal if the deceased person had been deemed indigent?
A mismanaged case
While Devlin was on trial in May 2008 for assaulting the 52-year-old Heily, he killed Heily just before the victim was slated to testify against Devlin. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but a judge took the death sentence off the table after ruling that prosecutors had mismanaged the case, according to The Spokesman-Review newspaper.
A jury found Devlin guilty of aggravated first-degree murder, and on Sept. 16, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Devlin's lawyers filed an appeal within hours of the sentencing.
On the morning of Sept. 20, Devlin was found dead inside his jail cell. A death certificate revealed that Devlin ingested a fatal amount of antidepressants, which investigators linked to another Spokane County Jail inmate. Sheriff's investigators believe that inmate provided the drugs to Devlin, but charges have not been filed.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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