No charges for judge who cut trees - Prosecutor's decision angers park authorities
Seattle, WA - It was wrong for a federal judge who wanted a better view of Lake Washington to allow his gardener to cut down 120 trees in a public park. But the judge committed an error, not a felony, King County prosecutors decided yesterday.
Jerome Farris, a senior judge with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, mistakenly believed he had permission from the city to cut down the trees in Colman Park next to his gated home, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said at a news conference. Farris has cooperated fully with the investigation, Maleng said.
Maleng's decision, which came months after the park damage was discovered, angered Seattle park authorities and environmentalists.
"This tree massacre was a criminal violation; it is against the law to cut trees on public property to enhance private views," said Lauren Braden, the Audubon Society's Seattle-based advocate for wildlife habitat. "This person deserves just punishment."
Maleng referred the case to the City Attorney's Office, which is weighing both a civil suit and misdemeanor criminal charges against the judge. The damage to the park may cost $200,000 or more to make right.
County prosecutors decided against pursuing malicious mischief charges against Farris, accusations usually reserved for such vandals as graffiti artists, Maleng said.
"Based on investigation, I have concluded that the trees were cut down as a result of a series of misunderstandings," Maleng said.
"Park property was injured and must be restored. That principle is not in dispute by any party to this matter, including Judge Farris, who has pledged his intention to repay the city for the costs related to cleanup and restoration of Colman Park."
In August, Seattle Parks and Recreation crews discovered that more than 120 mature bigleaf maples and indigenous cherry trees, some of them more than 40 years old and reaching heights of up to 55 feet, had been cut down within a three-quarters-of-an-acre plot next to Farris' home.
Park department authorities were distressed about Maleng's ruling.
"I'm very disappointed in the prosecutor's decision," Parks and Recreation Superintendent Ken Bounds said in a statement. "This was an opportunity to send a strong message to the public that it is illegal and wrong to remove publicly owned trees for any citizen's benefit, and they missed it."
Added Mark Mead, senior urban forester with the park department: "This is the worst case that we've seen in the last 15-20 years. Paying for a replanting does not really compensate the city for the loss of the trees."
Mead said the trees would cost $135,000 to replace, and it would further cost city officials another $70,000 for planting and refurbishment. If the city pursues a civil suit under timber trespass laws, however, it could request triple damages for the violation, totaling more than $600,000.
Farris, 72, who as a senior judge occasionally still presides over appellate cases in Washington state and elsewhere, apologized yesterday.
"I could never intentionally engage in any conduct which would damage or otherwise diminish the value of any park," Farris said. "I deeply regret that this incident occurred." Farris said he mistakenly believed he had permission from the city to cut the trees down, based on a 1981 agreement allowing him then to trim some of the trees. He said his gardener had also misunderstood instructions given to him in July regarding the trees and other projects on his property.
City Attorney Tom Carr will decide what legal course to take against the judge by the end of the week, office spokeswoman Kathryn Harper said. Filing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor criminal charge against Farris is still a possibility, she said.
John Wolfe, Farris' Seattle attorney, said he was "dumbfounded" the city was even considering filing a suit or pressing criminal charges, after Maleng dropped the case and when his client is cooperating. "I think we can resolve this without the expense of litigation," he said.
Neighbors of Farris in Mount Baker and local environmentalists said the tree cutting deserved "just punishment."
"There were a lot of people who were pretty outraged about this abuse of common park space," said Kimberly Burroughs, president of the Mount Baker Community Club. The club, she said, has had heated meetings on the topic.
P-I reporter Sam Skolnik can be reached at 206-467-1039 or firstname.lastname@example.org P-I reporter Kathy Mulady contributed to this report.
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