SEATTLE — A former Washington corrections officer who sexually assaulted four inmates at the city of Forks jail in 2019 is out of prison after completing roughly 13 months of his 20-month sentence.
John Gray, who was convicted of two felony and two misdemeanor counts of custodial sexual misconduct in December 2020, was released from an Oregon corrections facility in late March, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections.
“I don’t think he got enough time because he used his power as a place of taking advantage of people,” said Jennifer Holmes, one of the four women Gray sexually assaulted. “[He used] his job as a way to get women to do what he wanted.”
Gray was released from prison early because he accumulated “earned release time” – sentence reduction credits that are, by Washington law, awarded to all incarcerated people who participate in prison programs or show good behavior during their time behind bars.
But even before his early release, the former guard's 20-month prison sentence widely drew criticism from members of the public, victim advocates and criminal justice experts, who thought he should have faced more prison time.
“I think it sends a terrible message,” said Dr. Craig Hemmens, a Washington State University criminal justice professor who’s studied nationwide penalties for corrections officers who commit sex crimes. "I was shocked, very, very surprised, to see such a low sentence for what appeared to be serial misconduct – serial sexual assault.”
Hemmens and other criminal justice experts questioned why a man who preyed upon vulnerable women while holding authority over them didn’t face tougher consequences, and they suspected the guard faced lighter penalties because of the law enforcement profession he held.
“I don’t think [the sentence is] appropriate,” said Brenda Smith, an American University law professor and a former member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, who helped create the standards for governmental response to sexual victimization cases in custodial settings. “The fact is, if those offenses occurred outside of a custodial setting, this sentence would have probably been higher.”
Gray, who was the subject of multiple KING 5 investigations this year, could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing him in a federal lawsuit did not answer an email seeking a response for this story, and he previously denied KING 5's requests for interviews.
According to Clallam County court records, Gray had sexual intercourse with two women and sexual contact with his other victims, including Holmes, who said the guard forced her to touch his crotch while she was alone with him in the jail library. Police investigators also found Gray paid bail for two of the four women after he sexually assaulted them.
Michele Devlin, chief criminal deputy prosecutor at the Clallam County Prosecutor’s Office, recommended the 20-month sentence as part of Gray’s plea deal. She said she offered him a deal after considering his four victims were in different emotional states and had varying abilities to testify.
“I have absolutely no regrets. I did my job. I met with every one of my survivors. I took into account their emotional well-being and what I had available to me, and this is what we ended up with,” she said. “I could have tried to push them over the edge, but I didn’t think that was appropriate.”
If the case went to trial and Gray was convicted of all his original felony charges, he could have faced up to five years in prison, according to court records and Washington state sentencing guidelines. Devlin said she would have also requested the judge impose a higher sentence than what was typical.
But the length of Gray’s prison sentence wasn’t solely in the prosecutor’s hands. It was driven by a decades-old decision by the Washington State Legislature to set lighter penalties for sexual assault cases involving corrections officers compared with penalties for the most serious rape cases involving civilian offenders.
“It’s not the conduct itself. It’s the way the case was charged that drove the outcome,” said David Smith, a Seattle-based attorney and former prosecutor who reviewed details of Gray’s criminal case at KING 5’s request.
Detectives recommended more serious charges
Devlin’s decision to charge the former jail guard with custodial sexual misconduct – a crime intended to hold corrections officers to account in cases of sexual abuse – significantly influenced the penalties Gray received under the state’s sentencing guidelines.
In Washington, sentences for adult felony crimes are determined by a system that takes into account the “seriousness level” of the offense and the criminal record of the offender. Judges score defendants by looking at their history – assigning higher scores to offenders with prior convictions. Then, they consult a grid of sentencing ranges that are calculated based on those two factors.
After the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office completed their investigation into the sexual assaults involving three of Gray’s four victims, detectives determined they had probable cause to arrest him on multiple first- and second-degree counts of custodial sexual misconduct. For first-time offenders, the standard sentencing range for one felony conviction of the crime can range from six to 12 months in prison.
But, court records show, detectives thought they also had the evidence to charge Gray with a significantly more serious crime: two counts of second-degree rape. The crime is a class A felony and for first-time offenders, a conviction of one count typically carries a prison sentence of six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years.
Investigators believed Gray raped his fourth victim, Morgan Lee, while he was transporting her on an hours-long drive from Mason County to the Forks Jail in September 2019. On two occasions during the trip, as Lee’s arms were handcuffed and her feet were in shackles, Gray reached under her skirt and penetrated her with his finger, according to law enforcement and court records.
“He forced this on me. He did this with me completely helpless, in shackles,” said Lee, 38, of Shelton. “I was at the mercy of him – powerless to do anything, and I think that’s how he preferred it.”
Law enforcement referred Lee’s case to the Clallam County Prosecutor’s Office, recommending prosecutors move forward with charges of second-degree rape.
Devlin, the lead prosecutor, said she considered charging the state’s rape statutes for each of the sexual assaults but opted to go another route with the case.
“A prosecutor has an ethical obligation not to charge anything they don’t believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “So, when I reviewed all the evidence, I decided that custodial sexual misconduct in the first degree was the more proper charge.”
Some criminal justice experts who reviewed the facts of Gray’s criminal case said they disagree with the prosecutor’s decision not to pursue rape charges. They said charging second-degree rape would have made an important statement about the seriousness of Gray's misconduct.
“It’s obvious that a different charge could have been brought,” said David Smith, the Seattle attorney and former prosecutor who reviewed Lee’s case. “Prosecutors sometimes have to take principal positions – even if you run the risk that you are going to get someone acquitted – because you’re not willing to let him plead guilty to some lesser offense.”
Devlin said she doesn’t recall the specific factors that led her to decline to file second-degree rape charges because several years have passed since she prosecuted the case.
Brenda Smith, who provides nationwide training on sexual victimization behind bars in her role as director for the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Addressing Prison Rape, said it’s common for corrections officers to face low penalties after engaging in sexual misconduct.
“And one of the reasons that they have these penalties is because of the inability to get prosecutors to charge these higher offenses,” she said.
How state lawmakers set penalties for predatory corrections officers
Prosecutors nationwide have historically found that custodial sexual abuse is difficult to prove under rape statutes because of victim credibility concerns from juries and questions over consent.
It’s why the Washington state Legislature created the crime of custodial sexual misconduct in 1999. The new crime was seen as a tool to make it easier for prosecutors to get convictions in those types of cases, according to a former lawmaker and a former attorney who were involved in creating the first- and second-degree statutes.
The law criminalized all sexual contact and intercourse involving correctional officers in custodial settings, including situations where inmates and guards claimed to have consensual relationships or quid pro quo arrangements.
“The question really turned around two words – consent and control,” said Bernard Ryan, who worked on the legislation while he was the senior counsel for the Washington State Senate Democratic Caucus in the late ‘90s. “And the argument was, of course, that the inmates had no control over the situation, and therefore, they had no capacity to make a meaningful consent.”
When the Legislature unanimously voted to pass the bill, they made the crime a Class C felony and assigned it a seriousness level of five – the same level as the crime of rape in the third degree but six levels lower than the seriousness level they assigned to second-degree rape.
Rape in the second degree is a crime that occurs when the perpetrator uses or threatens physical force during sexual intercourse. It can also include other situations, such as when the victim is physically helpless or mentally incapacitated; when the victim has a developmental disability and the perpetrator has supervisory authority over them; when the victim is a patient and the perpetrator is a health care provider; or when the victim is a resident of a mental health or chemical dependency facility and the perpetrator is a supervisor.
There’s no record of why the state Legislature decided to make the penalties for custodial sexual misconduct less severe. Officials who played a role in setting the severity of the crime said they couldn’t recall specifics of the discussion that led to their 1999 decision.
“We put a lesser value on sexual misconduct committed on women who are incarcerated than women who weren’t incarcerated, and that doesn’t seem right,” said Hemmens, the WSU criminal justice professor. “I think it should be punished every bit as severely or more so than in the free world.”
Hemmens isn’t the only one calling for legislative changes.
Delvin, the Clallam County prosecutor in Gray’s case, said she made the best decisions available to get justice for the four survivors but added that the sentencing options in custodial misconduct cases are “frustrating.”
She said she thinks state lawmakers should increase the seriousness level of the crime.
“I think having somebody in that sort of power that is committing those kinds of crimes, that it should be taken more seriously by our Legislature,” she said. “It should be treated more like rape in the second degree.”
Adam Kline, one of the former Washington state senators who co-sponsored the 1999 bill, said the state Legislature has a history of increasing the seriousness levels of some crimes in response to public outcry.
"We've done that, and sometimes to good effect," said Kline, a Democrat who represented South Seattle for 18 years. "But sometimes, it's a mistake."
Pointing out the potential for overcrowding the state's jails and prisons and the danger of over-punishing the people who live in them, Kline said longer sentences aren't always the right solution.
"We cannot have every crime go become more and more serious," he said.