‘Out of the Jury Box’
Sheri Pewitt’s personal mantra guides her practice—and her pro bono work representing political protesters
Published in 2017 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on June 9, 2017
Nearly 15 years ago, in King County Superior Court Judge Richard F. McDermott’s courtroom, a jury found a defendant guilty—and inspired a mother of two young girls to go to law school and become a criminal law attorney.
Sheri Pewitt was on that jury, serving as the foreperson, shortly after having her second child. “It mattered to be there,” she recalls. “Every role fascinated me.”
A few years earlier, Pewitt, who holds an MBA from the University of Washington, had left a travel-heavy job in international marketing to have more time to raise her family. A role as marketing director at a startup had ended when the company fell prey to the dot-com bust. She was now freelancing in marketing and feeling “rather uninspired” about her career.
So she started taking night classes at Seattle University School of Law, and freely admits she was “that annoying person who loved every minute of it.” After her second year, she returned to Judge McDermott’s courtroom—this time as a law clerk.
“Her passion for doing the right thing and dogged determination were impressive from day one,” says McDermott. He ranks her among the top three of the three dozen clerks he has worked with in 17 years: “There wasn’t a case she wasn’t able to handle.”
During her third year of law school, Pewitt clerked for the sexually violent predator unit of the State Attorney General’s Office, assisting in the civil commitment case of “South Hill Rapist” Kevin Coe from Spokane. Her tasks included preparing victims to testify and gathering information about Coe’s deviant conduct alleged by a woman he married during his incarceration.
Pewitt initially planned to become a prosecutor. “I believed in the utopia of the system,” she recalls. “Like most jurors and people who haven’t been on the other side, I thought the police never lied and assumed everyone who was charged must have done something or they wouldn’t be sitting there.”
An externship in 2008 with the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense helped change her mind. “People forget that a defense attorney’s job is not to get guilty people off,” she says. “It’s to fight to make sure their constitutional rights are protected and make sure the system works properly.”
Sometimes, she says, police “just have it wrong.” Her job is to make them prove their cases.
Pewitt made a name for herself as a public defender when she obtained an acquittal for a client accused of reckless driving and DUI. Her defense was that Ambien had caused “sleep-driving.” She requested jury instructions to include information on involuntary intoxication and automatism. “The office had taken up a poll against me,” Pewitt says, laughing. “It was a long shot, but my supervisor noted that the worst thing the judge could say is no. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get it.” The judge said yes, and it may have been crucial to winning the case.
Since 2013, after four years at the Public Defender’s Office, Pewitt has worked as a solo practitioner. “Sheri goes above and beyond for every client,” says criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Burg, who shares an office suite with Pewitt. “She treats every case like the most important case in the world.”
That includes pro bono constitutional-rights cases. In 2015, she helped defend 11 people arrested over a road blockage during a Black Lives Matter protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They were charged with pedestrian interference—a simple misdemeanor.
Though each defendant had counsel, Pewitt served as the lead and thought carefully about framing the case in a way that would fit into the worldview of the jurors. “I had to convince them that we all owe a debt to people who risked arrest and harm in protesting,” she recalls. “The social fabric we know today did not simply just come to be; we had to fight for it.” She cites the suffragettes, as well as those who pushed for adoption of the ADA, labor laws and Title IX.
Not all the defendants wanted to pursue the weeklong trial. Those who did, including Pewitt’s, were acquitted after less than 30 minutes of deliberation. The other seven negotiated non-conviction pleas.
As thanks, Pewitt’s clients gave her a piece of artwork that now hangs in her tidy office. It depicts a pair of hands linked at the wrist, over the phrase “We are stronger together.” It’s a personal and professional maxim for Pewitt, who continues to represent political protesters through the National Lawyers Guild, an organization dedicated to protecting civil rights. She also actively encourages others to volunteer as pro bono attorneys and legal observers of protests.
Pewitt makes sure her clients are fully informed about possible “collateral consequences” if they are convicted. She gives them personalized charts showing the potential outcomes—such as the loss of financial aid, federal employment or housing. “Often, jail is the last thing criminal defendants need to be concerned about,” she says, noting that those charged—particularly first-time offenders—have trouble focusing on other considerations.
Pewitt regularly protects the interests of her clients outside of court as well, testifying before legislative committees in Olympia on proposals concerning criminal justice. She serves as co-chair of the Legislative Committee for the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She is particularly concerned about new laws passed allowing law-enforcement officers to draw blood to test for drug intoxication: “There’s a tension between making sure we have safe, sober drivers on our roads, but also not going down a slippery slope of really significant civil rights violations.”
The lawyer who was inspired by her own jury service has a theory about appealing to jurors—and it goes against the standard practice of asking jurors to set aside their passions and prejudices.
“In trial and in life, don’t expect people to set aside their beliefs to hear yours,” Pewitt says. “Instead, look for common ground with the issue being considered. When common interests align, we are better able to listen and understand. Only then does the promise of a fair trial become possible.”