When the victim of a crime is homeless in Seattle, it’s often far easier to plead the case out than take the case to trial. Homeless victims or homeless witnesses are difficult to locate and get to trial.
Jurors often struggle to understand the circumstances around homeless victim crimes. And homeless victims might be mentally ill, addicts, or have made unusual lifestyle choices.
People on the street know this. They are often resigned to being regular victims of crime and have long ago surrendered any notion of seeking justice for themselves.
“How we advocate for and how we treat the most marginalized people in our community is telling,” says Jason Simmons, a prosecutor who routinely raises his hand for the homeless cases that come into the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. “It tells us about the kind of justice system we believe in, and it tells us about the kind of community we want to be. Every victim deserves a voice, an advocate, and justice.”
Jason once tried a case in which a homeless man was stabbed 17 times before someone called 911 and paramedics rushed him to Harborview Medical Center. The witnesses all lived in the park next to the courthouse, so Jason spent hours finding them, talking with them in the park, and convincing them to show up in court to take a dangerous person off the streets.
How we advocate for and how we treat the most marginalized people in our community is telling. It tells us about the kind of justice system we believe in, and it tells us about the kind of community we want to be. Every victim deserves a voice, an advocate, and justice.
Walking through City Hall Park, Jason points out that the hardcore drug addicts congregate along Jefferson Street. The homeless men and women who have set up tents on the southeast end of the park across Dilling Way know Jason by name. He stops to talk to one homeless man who wants to know what Jason thinks about Mayor Murray’s declaration of a state of emergency on the homeless crisis. The two talk the way good neighbors share conversations over a fence.
Jason didn’t start out as a champion for the dispossessed. A high school drop out with his GED, Jason worked for the Forest Service and was part of an elite hotshot fire crew, firefighters specially trained in wildfire suppression tactics. “Everyone knows about smoke jumpers who are dropped into a wildfire area. We used to say the hotshot crew was so tough, we had to walk to the fire,” Jason joked. "It was hard work, but also very rewarding work."
The same grit that helped him fight fires eventually propelled Jason to law school where he met Nelson Lee (then with the prosecutor’s office) at a student association/free pizza event.
“I thought I would be a public defender," Jason said. "Then I met some people from the prosecutor's office who really impressed me, so I decided to intern at the prosecutor's office after my first year of law school. "
“People here weren’t interested in winning convictions at every turn. Everyone was asking, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ In this office, we can sometimes strike this guy out. We can get a conviction. We can dismiss a case. We can keep addicts out of prison with drug court. People in this office are constantly looking to do what is just and what is right.”
Going to trial on difficult cases with homeless victims is often the right thing to do, Jason says. "We all share the same basic human qualities. It's rewarding to help a juror relate to a homeless addict or a prostitute; to understand why they are credible and believable; to ensure victims receive justice."
Jason, left, visits with a homeless friend in City Hall Park in Seattle.
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