WSP inmate who helped expose plot pardoned

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An inmate who exposed a murder plot while serving time at Washington State Penitentiary was among 10 people who had convictions erased or sentences reduced by Gov. Chris Gregoire during her final days in office.

The offender, John Ray Stewart, 44, has been serving a life without parole sentence. In 2001, he told prison officials that his cellmate, Steven F. Sherer, was plotting to kill then King-County deputy prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman, who had prosecuted Sherer for the murder of his wife. Sherer also wanted to burn down the home of a key witness who helped convict him.

In 2004, Sherer was tried in Walla Walla County Superior Court and convicted of criminal solicitation to commit first-degree arson. He was sentenced to life without parole under the state’s Three Strikes law. At his sentencing, Sherer defiantly protested the conviction, saying it was the result of a snitch who “makes up things.” He also called his murder conviction “unbelievable,” although he had lost state appeals in the case.

In her proclamation, Gregoire said “A detective in the Major Crimes Unit of the King County Sheriff’s Office wrote that Mr. Stewart ‘testified in trial knowing his own safety within the penitentiary would be sacrificed. The detective wrote that Mr. Stewart never asked for or received any financial reimbursement for his assistance, but that Mr. Stewart’s motivation was to balance the wrong he had committed in his life by helping to thwart a scheme to murder a deputy prosecutor.”

Stewart, whose name was never made public when the arson plot was revealed, has been serving a life sentence after being convicted in 1997 of first-degree burglary and attempted robbery in King County. He had prior convictions for second-degree assault in King County and first-degree manslaughter in Pierce County.

Now at Airway Heights Corrections Center, Stewart spent a year in solitary confinement for his own safety after reporting the plot. The state Clemency and Pardons Board unanimously recommended him for clemency in 2007, but Gregoire denied it.

During his time in custody he has earned a high-school general equivalency degree and completed victims’ awareness and anger management programs, and has participated in Narcotics Anonymous, the governor said.

Gregoire ordered the Department of Corrections to take steps to return Stewart, 43, to society if he agrees to abide by numerous conditions and if a forensic psychologist determines he’s a low risk to reoffend.

The Seattle Times and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin contributed to this story.

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