A Judge in Search of Solutions

Posted 11/29/23


On Friday, Nov. 17, Judge Brendan Mack entered the Jefferson County courtroom to sentence Pierce County resident Siaumau Sanele Auseuga after Auseuga was found guilty of being a felon in …

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A Judge in Search of Solutions



On Friday, Nov. 17, Judge Brendan Mack entered the Jefferson County courtroom to sentence Pierce County resident Siaumau Sanele Auseuga after Auseuga was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a handgun.

 The results of that hearing were unexpected.

The events that led to last week’s hearing are well-documented.  In 2021, members of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department stopped a vehicle being driven by Auseuga for expired tags. The officers learned that his license had been suspended and that he had been convicted of a felony stemming from domestic violence charges in 2015.  

An examination of the contents of Auseuga’s pockets led to the discovery of two mismatched 9mm bullets. A subsequent search of the vehicle identified a fully-loaded handgun tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console.

Both Washington state and federal law prohibit individuals convicted of a felony from possessing handguns. Federal law also bars felons from owning ammunition. Based on these laws, Auseuga was arrested and charged with illegal possession of a firearm.  

A trial followed Auseuga’s arrest. The defense provided a witness, Miranda Palmer, who testified that both the car and the gun belonged to her and that she had accidentally left the weapon in the vehicle. This was countered by the prosecution’s demonstration that the gun recovered from the vehicle contained the same mismatched bullets that were found in Auseuga’s pocket. Details related to the position of the gun within the car and statements made by Auseuga that he came from a “rough area” were, apparently, persuasive. The jury returned a verdict of guilty.    

There were few in attendance when Auseuga was escorted into the courtroom this past Friday. Judge Mack opened the hearing by allowing the prosecution to walk through a series of arguments for why Auseuga’s sentence should be 42 months, the midpoint between the state-prescribed 36-48 month mandatory sentencing window.

Included was the fact that Auseuga had skipped bail on one occasion since his arrest.

Auseuga’s defense attorney, Lilly Powers of the Public Defender’s office, followed by first acknowledging the friends and family members who were present in the courtroom. She spoke of her client’s progress as a father and a husband since his original felony in 2015, and finished by asking the court for leniency.Auseuga then spoke on his own behalf. In a halted, sometimes emotional reading, he described the path that led him to this day in court and acknowledged that he could not run from his problems. He thanked his family for their support, and reemphasized his desire to move forward in his journeyUp until this point in the hearing, everything presented could be found in the official court filings that were available in the clerk’s office across the hall. But when it came time for Judge Mack to make a ruling, the hearing took an unexpected turn.As he appeared to be studying notes on his courtroom computer, the judge began to verbally walk through the facts of the case, adding his own, seemingly unrehearsed, positions as he considered the options before him.

He reminded the audience that this was a victimless crime and that Auseuga was a father and a grandfather, whose son had recently graduated from school in Port Townsend.

Judge Mack acknowledged that claims of racism had arisen during the trial and recounted that Auseuga had revealed he felt “harassed” each time he came to Jefferson County. Auseuga, a man of Samoan descent, was convicted by an all-white jury.

Regarding the crime of illegal possession of a firearm, Judge Mack mused over the applicability of the legal concept of “crimes committed under duress” – advancing the possibility that Auseuga’s need for an illegal firearm could be tied to the pressures associated with living in a ‘rough area.’

Finally, the judge reflected on the fairness of current sentencing guidelines by reminding the court that identical crimes committed in disparate parts of the country often carry very different penalties.

At this point, the judge turned his full attention to the audience in the courtroom. He speculated on alternative penalties – work-release programs and suspended sentences. And then, speaking directly to the prosecution and defense teams, he asked them to consider leaving the courtroom and returning on Dec. 1 with new proposals.

The request was not delivered as a rebuke to the opposing legal teams that sat before him. Rather, it seemed more of a push for the two parties to work together to find alternatives to the staunch, often unwavering, sentencing guidelines that repeatedly send individuals to jail for victimless crimes.

While the proposed Dec. 1 deadline would place a greater burden on the prosecution and defense teams, Judge Mack’s request closely parallels his background in programs that attempt to limit the impact of victimless crimes on the state penal system and minimize the detrimental effects that incarceration has on family structures. Prior to joining the bench in late 2022, Judge Mack’s background focused on at-risk youth through the Outward Bound and AmeriCorps programs. Subsequently, at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, he represented the Department of Children, Youth and Families, and volunteered with the Northwest Immigrant Right’s Project

At the conclusion of the hearing, the parties agreed to the judge’s request and committed to resume discussions the following month.