by Matt Rosenberg July 24th, 2012
A ruling from a Washington State appeals court Monday upheld the conviction of a Seattle man for other charges related to an anti-gay hate crime for which he was also convicted, near a Capitol Hill LGBT nightclub. Muhamet M. Sumaj was convicted in 2011 of felony and malicious harassment of a female-to-male transsexual named A.M. and felony harassment of a security guard named Donald Tidd after Sumaj conveyed racially and sexually-tinged verbal abuse and death threats outside Neighbours, a club popular with LGBT patrons. King County prosecutors noted at the time that malicious harassment is the legal term used in the state’s “hate crime” law. Sumaj was sentenced by King County Judge Steven C. Gonzales in February 2011 to six months of Work Education Release, on a King County work crew. Sumaj’s attorney in early October 2011 filed an appeal with the state seeking to overturn the felony harassment convictions, arguing prosecutors failed to properly spell out in their case that he had made a “true threat,” and also asserting there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Sumaj on the second one, involving Tidd. King County filed a response and after deliberation Sumaj’s appeal was rejected July 23 by the Washington State Court of Appeals Division One.
In its ruling issued this week, the court emphasized that Sumaj’s attorney failed to challenge the wording of the charging documents in the original trial and therefore had scant standing to find related fault on appeal. Moreover, the state appeals court judges said in their ruling that a series of court cases underscore that an explicit assertion a “true threat” occurred isn’t required to convict for felony harassment, and that evidence did support the second of the two felony harassment convictions, involving Tidd. The court added that felony harassment stems from threatening bodily injury and inducing “reasonable fear” the threat would materialize.
The court ruling – written by Judge Ann Schindler with Judges Marlin Appelwick and Anne Ellington concurring – recounts the events that led to the charges against Sumaj and his convictions. Coming out of Neighbours to check on her car on a Sunday evening in late January 2010, A.M. was confronted by Sumaj, who had been regularly frequenting the club, and then made vulgar comments directed at her, disparaging gays and African-Americans. According to A.M., Sumaj added, “I’m going to cut your throat,” and “I will kill you wherever you go. You’re a (racist term used against African-Americans). I find you.” A.M. ran to the club’s alley entrance and Sumaj followed, yelling obscenities. As she ran by, a “terrified” A.M. told the head of security at Neighbours, Tidd, that Sumaj was “trying to kill me, he said he’s going to kill me.” Tidd got between the two and radioed for help, and Sumaj soon was forced to back away. But according to the appeals court ruling, Sumaj remained highly agitated and said to Tidd, “I’m going to go to my car and get my gun and kill you.” Tidd called 911. Seattle Police officers arrived soon thereafter and Sumaj, who had returned to the scene, was arrested.
The maximum punishment under state law for each of the offenses for which Sumaj was convicted is five years in custody and a fine of up to $10,000 although th so-called “standard sentencing range” is three to eight months for each. In their recommendation to the court, prosecutors had sought sentences of eight months on each of the felony harassment charges and 12 months on the hate crime, or malicious harassment, charge. However it is exceedingly common for sentences to be served concurrently not consecutively. The sentences issued by King County Circuit Court Judge Gonzales on the three crimes were for three months, six months and three months – to be served concurrently and thus amounting to six months for Sumaj on the county work crew, minus 16 days served in custody.
The appeals court ruling is at present classified as “unpublished” which means that although it has been made public online it cannot be cited as legal precedent in future cases unless and until the appeals court decides to have it officially published. This often occurs within several months.
Neighbours is at 1509 Broadway on Capitol Hill and has been in operation since 1983. Sumaj also goes by the name of Mike Sumaj and operates a Seattle-based painting service. About seven months before the incidents outside Neighbours, one Yelp reviewer of his work as a painter described him as “a charming man who has moved here from Albania.”
(Editor’s Note: At the request of the victim, we have identified the victim only by initials and removed certain work-history details.)