Growing up on Seattle’s placid Beacon Hill, Seth Fine’s room was a scene of carnage. “I was always interested in war games as a teenager,” he recalls. “I can remember having ‘Blitzkreig’ [conflict board game] spread all over my floor.” The attraction was historic and philosophical. “I was fascinated by games and strategies. Here’s a rule, there’s a rule, how do you fit them all together and make a system work?”
Now deputy prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, Fine, 50, pieces together the intricacies of appellate law, handling dozens of appeals a year and arguing and writing briefs for cases at the state Supreme Court. His efforts earned him the Snohomish County Bar Association’s Attorney of the Year award in 2003—“in honor of years of tireless effort on behalf of the citizens of Washington state,” says Richard Okrent, vice president of the bar at the time. “He is one of the foremost legal scholars in criminal law in the region.”
The only one who seems surprised by Fine’s success at his job is Fine.
“When I was in law school,” he says, “ I always saw myself on the defense side. I never thought I’d become a prosecutor.”
After all, Fine’s interest in the law began in the wake of America’s “Red Scare,” when Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked the flames of anti-communist paranoia. “My parents were sympathetic to the people who were accused of having the wrong ideas,” Fine recalls. His father was a civil engineering instructor at Everett Community College; his mother oversaw nursing-home quality for the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Equally formative for Fine was his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew, which meant studying the Talmud, with its exhaustive examination of a legal system’s structure. Fine was bent on going into law to defend the wrongly accused.
His late mother wasn’t so sure about his career choice. “I’d been interested in the law for many years, but she would always try to talk me out of it,” he says with a smile. “She thought it was disreputable.” Despite her warnings, Fine entered the University of Puget Sound School of Law in 1977.
As fate would have it, his mother came around. She took some law classes at UPS to help with her work, completed her law degree and opened a private practice. As for Fine, while at law school he interned with the King County Prosecutor’s Office. “I learned I didn’t make a good impression in the interview,” he relates, “but another intern told them, ‘This is a really good guy—you’ve got to hire him,’ and they did.” After that, he worked for the DSHS, then as a staff attorney for the state Supreme Court, where he got a taste of felony cases.
In 1983, then-Snohomish County Prosecutor Seth Dawson hired Fine to handle appeals. It was a different era—before Microsoft, Starbucks and the population explosion that has powered a tremendous growth in the county just north of Seattle. “At that time,” recalls Fine, “I was the criminal appellate unit. Now, there are five attorneys in the office.” The caseload has exploded. The entire Snohomish County office handled 21,115 criminal referrals in 2006.
Fine has earned the respect of those on both sides of the courtroom. Eric Broman, an appellate litigator with Nielsen, Broman & Koch, has faced Fine numerous times. “He’s a really smart guy,” says Broman. “He’s always thoughtful. And he’s mellowed over the years. I remember the first time I heard about him, in the late ’80s. He was considered a very effective opponent, and some public defenders thought he pushed the envelope a bit. But now . . . I can call him and we can talk things out over the phone. I like that kind of prosecutor.”
Fine has seen many wins, but one case that stands out in his memory was an appeal in which he wasn’t even the prosecutor. Jonathan Gentry, convicted in 1991 of brutally killing a 12-year-old girl, appealed his death sentence before the state Supreme Court, saying the victim’s family should not have been allowed to testify at his sentencing hearing. Fine used his vacation time to step in and defend the constitutional right of a murder victim’s family and friends to have their say. “It was a situation,” he says, “where someone needed to speak for victims and victims’ families.” Gentry’s appeal was denied.
Fine is now looked to as a legal resource. “He is probably the most experienced appellate attorney in death-penalty law around,” says Okrent.
And in his free time? It might seem an odd way to unwind from battling crime and corruption, but Fine is still playing those war games.