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'The Impossible Case'

How Paul Heer set a new standard in clemency work

Published in 2022 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

“Give me a tough one.” 

Paul Heer remembers speaking those words when he asked for his first pro bono case with the Seattle Clemency Project (SCP) in 2017. What followed: “a three-year slog getting to the finish line,” recalls Heer, 31, who represented a 48-year-old man imprisoned for nearly three decades on a double homicide conviction.

“It ended up being more than just a hard one,” he says. “There hadn’t been any precedent for a win of that kind of case.” 

Heer says his client, E.Y., knew a crime might occur back in 1991 when he lent a car to his co-defendants, but that he was not present at the double gang murder, which occurred just days after E.Y.’s 18th birthday. The actual triggermen, says Heer, ended up serving less time because of a plea deal and a legal technicality.

“We had to win the ‘impossible’ case so that every matter up for commutation after this case got a fair and honest shake under the clemency standard—regardless of the title of the convicted crime,” says Heer.

His first meeting with his client inspired him: E.Y. was surprisingly upbeat. His optimistic personality inspired others to join him in pursuing educational and vocational training goals while incarcerated. E.Y. seemed to meet the criteria of the SCP, which seeks release of those who have gained maturity and rehabilitation while imprisoned. 

Still, Heer knew that the cards were stacked against him. “Anyone who knows the system is going to be betting against this coming out to be a positive outcome,” says Heer. He calls his effort “a Hail Mary.” 

He started by compiling E.Y.’s life story, beginning with a childhood of neglect and his quest for connection with a street gang that made him a “junior mascot” when he was just 9. Heer’s goal was to present E.Y. as a whole person.  

“I did a lot of the interviewing of him, and of basically anyone he’d had real contact with, and I reviewed tens of thousands of pages of various records, and was able to put together an objective, accurate narrative,” says Heer. This holistic approach was prevented in the past, he says, “simply because of a lack of resources,” a situation being addressed by the SCP, which was founded in 2016 by Seattle criminal defense attorneys Jon Zulauf, at Zulauf & Chambliss, and Jennifer Smith, now SCP’s executive director. 

The narrative—along with details about a job offer that E.Y. had lined up, and his plans for continued education, housing, financial and community support—resulted in the state Clemency and Pardons Board’s unanimous vote in his favor. Until Dec. 11, 2020, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed the commutation, no defendant convicted on a charge that severe had achieved clemency.

Heer says E.Y.’s release has had a positive effect on inmate behavior in Washington, which adopted standard sentencing ranges and abolished parole in the early 1980s. “Now there’s a sense of hope that, ‘Hey, the person I’m becoming actually matters,’” Heer says. “It’s becoming an example of what our community should be doing, which is giving these individuals an opportunity to earn a second chance.” 

Heer’s approach of compiling a complete personal history has been adopted as the standard by pro bono attorneys for SCP. On his second pro bono case with the organization, he was assisted in his research by volunteers from Microsoft, a community partner with SCP. That case resulted in the early release of his client, who, 21 years earlier, had been sentenced at age 17 to a long prison term. Through SCP, pro bono attorneys have brought about the release of about 65 clients, 52 of them lifers.

Heer went on to become a board member at SCP, and now serves as its president, devoting more than 200 hours annually to the organization. At work, he co-chairs his firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. He helped build—and now volunteers with—the Washington Joint Minority Mentorship Program, which pairs young lawyers and law students from underrepresented groups with mentor attorneys and judges.

Heer’s service was recognized by the King County Bar with the 2020-’21 Outstanding Young Lawyer Award; and by the state Bar with its 2021 APEX Outstanding Young Lawyer Award. 


In the Cards

When Heer needs to unwind, he pulls up a chair and cuts a deck. “I have always enjoyed playing cards,” he says.

In India, he learned how to play a three-card poker game from food-stall workers down the street from his grandparents’ home, then progressed to playing in tournaments with other Pokémon or Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts. “Regardless of who you sit across the table from,” he says, “there is always something for them to teach you.”

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