For the past 12 years, Scott David Latham was an innocent man indefinitely locked up by the State of Washington.
In the sometimes-bizarre world of criminal justice, Latham took a step toward freedom Friday by pleading guilty to killing a man.
Latham, now 38, was arrested in 1997 for punching Tacoma’s Terry Cammon in the face in an admitting ward at Western State Hospital. Cammon, 49, fell, hit his head on the concrete floor and died. The attack was unprovoked, according to court records.
Pierce County prosecutors charged Latham with second-degree felony murder. They alleged he killed Cammon during the course of committing another felony, in this case assault.
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Latham, who has a history of mental illness, put forth an insanity defense. Superior Court Judge Vicki Hogan agreed he was insane at the time he attacked Cammon and in 1998 dismissed the case against him.
But Hogan also determined that Latham was a substantial danger to himself and others and indefinitely committed him to the state psychiatric hospital at Western State.
He couldn’t get out unless Hogan said so, according to his order of commitment.
The Washington State Supreme Court changed the equation in 2002 with one of its most controversial rulings, known as the Andress decision.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that assault no longer could serve as an underlying crime for a conviction of second-degree felony murder. The majority ruled that a beating, a stabbing or a shooting that caused a death wasn’t murder unless prosecutors could prove the killer intended for the victim to die.
Two years later, the court ruled in a separate case that the Andress decision applied to anyone convicted of second-degree felony murder between 1976, when state lawmakers rewrote the felony murder law, and 2002, when the Andress ruling was handed down.
The ruling applied to 35 Pierce County cases, including Latham’s.
In essence, he’d been committed to state custody in connection with a crime that didn’t exist.
Latham’s mental illness prevented him from launching a serious challenge to his commitment until last year, when an expert found him competent to help in his own defense.
Last month, Latham petitioned to have Hogan’s 1998 order declaring him insane vacated. Prosecutors could do nothing to stop him and negotiated a plea agreement that Hogan accepted Friday.
Latham pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and received a sentence of eight years, six months in prison, the high end of the standard range.
Hogan gave him credit for time served at Western State, which means he’s paid his debt to society.
Latham won’t be released immediately. Deputy prosecutors John Neeb and Tom Roberts included a provision in the plea agreement that requires Latham to undergo evaluation for involuntary commitment under the state’s civil laws.
He’ll remain at Western State for at least 17 days, probably longer, while he undergoes that process.
Latham’s family seemed sure Friday he’d win release. He’s been making progress in treatment for schizophrenia and other disorders, according to court records.
Cammon’s son, brother and good friend attended Friday’s hearing.
His brother Edward called Cammon a good man and a successful percussionist who voluntarily checked himself into Western State to seek treatment for depression he occasionally suffered after being disfigured in a car wreck.
They all told Hogan they were dismayed with the plea agreement. Latham is too ill to be set free, they said.
“Every man and woman sitting in this courtroom should be concerned about his returning to the streets,” said Paul Douglas, a friend of the Cammon family.
Latham at first declined to say anything before being sentenced. He changed his mind at the end.
“I’m sorry about what I did,” said Latham, the last of Pierce County’s Andress defendants to resolve his case.