Gregoire pardons inmate who reported murder-for-hire plot

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire has commuted the life sentence of a man who blew the whistle on a fellow prison inmate’s plot to kill a King County prosecutor.

Johnny Ray Stewart, 44, who is serving a life term under the state’s “three strikes” law, is among 10 people who received pardons or whose sentences were reduced by Gregoire in her final days in office.

In December 2001, Stewart told officials at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla that his cellmate, Steven Sherer, was plotting the killing of then-Senior Deputy Prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman.

Sherer apparently had promised another inmate $15,000 worth of jewels if he killed his former mother-in-law and Brenneman, who prosecuted him in 2000 for the murder of his wife. Sherer had claimed the jewels were buried underneath a house in Mill Creek, but authorities never found them, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott O’Toole said.

At the time, Sherer was serving a 60-year sentence for killing his wife, Jami Sherer, who disappeared from the couple’s Redmond home and has never been found.

Stewart told authorities that Sherer persuaded another cellmate to burn down the home of his former mother-in-law, Judy Hagel, as well as kill Brenneman. Police bugged the cell and overheard Sherer talking about the plan, authorities said.

When the cellmate who agreed to participate in the murder-for-hire plot was released from prison in 2002, King County sheriff’s deputies were waiting for him at a bus station.

He agreed to cooperate with them, prosecutors said.

To catch Sherer, prosecutors and detectives asked the editors at the then-Eastside Journal to run a fake story about an arson at Hagel’s Bellevue home. The story was published to make Sherer believe that his accomplice had carried out the plan.

A Walla Walla County jury later found Sherer guilty of first-degree solicitation to commit arson and given a life sentence under the three-strikes law

Stewart, whose name was never made public when the arson plot was revealed, has been serving a life sentence after committing third-strike offenses in 1997, first-degree burglary and attempted robbery in King County. The other strikes are for second-degree assault in King County and first-degree manslaughter in Pierce County.

No one from Gregoire’s staff could be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Gregoire ordered the Department of Corrections to begin taking steps to return Stewart to society if he agrees to abide by a lengthy set of conditions and if a forensic psychologist determines him to pose a low risk to reoffend.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office was notified Tuesday that Stewart’s sentence was being commuted, said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

In a letter to the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board dated June 20, 2011, Goodhew wrote, “this office must take the position to neither support nor oppose Mr. Stewart’s present petition for clemency from his life sentence.”

“We have reviewed his petition and are satisfied that it constitutes a thorough and complete review of the pertinent information contained in our files. We defer to the judgment of the Board and the Governor with regard to his petition,” the letter read.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said on Wednesday that he understands Gregoire’s decision was based on Stewart coming forward with potentially lifesaving information.

“Whether one agrees or not, one could certainly understand why the governor would give it that weight,” said Lindquist.

According to The Associated Press, among those who received a full pardon was Scott Adam Spong, who served six months in work release after pleading guilty to third-degree assault and carrying a concealed weapon without a license in 2001.

Spong shot and wounded a person in a group of young men who attacked him in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Thurston County. The governor says he accepted responsibility for his actions and went on to serve five years in the U.S. Army, including 15 months in Iraq.

Spong has been barred from working with disabled children because of the conviction.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and The Associated Press contributed to this report.