January 2020 Bar Bulletin
By Dan Satterberg
Mark Larson’s 35-year career in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) ended with his retirement at the end of 2019, but his impact on the office and its mission to “do justice” is enormous and enduring.
He was raised in a strong family led by his father, Bruce Larson, a nationally known Presbyterian minister, and his mother, Hazel, the rock of a family that was constantly on the move as Rev. Larson’s calling took them to churches across the country.
After college at Florida State University, and a brief stint as a probation officer, Mark found his way to the University of Puget Sound Law School and, in 1984, a position with the PAO as a Rule 9 intern. Fortunately for us, he never left. Mark was a skilled trial attorney, passionate about seeking justice for crime victims who could not speak for themselves.
In 1993, King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng elevated Mark to chief of the Criminal Division. Mark led the office through periods of growth and periods of budget cuts. He led innovations in the criminal law practice and led teams of prosecutors through challenging cases, including the prosecution of one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers, Gary Ridgway.
In a job that naturally requires an advocate to assume an adversarial role, Mark’s fan club, surprisingly (but not surprising to us), includes prominent defense attorneys and fellow prosecutors. “Mark is the prosecutor we should all strive to be,” said Andy Miller, the longtime Benton County prosecuting attorney. “He is an effective advocate for victims of crime and holds people accountable. But he always thinks about the right thing to do. He inspires the rest of us to seek justice instead of a win/loss record.”
The PAO Years
As Mark became the seasoned chief of the Criminal Division, his reputation grew as a thoughtful, considerate leader. “Mark has a statewide reputation for being the go-to expert on so many criminal justice issues, not just from prosecutors but also judges, criminal defense lawyers and legislators,” Miller said.
“On the state work group on eyewitness identification, I watched him discuss the intricacies of the science with academic experts and moments later explain it in common sense terms for the rest of us.”
Ray McFarland worked alongside Mark for years as a King County prosecutor, before McFarland left to open his own office. “Mark has always welcomed me into his office and was cordial, professional and thoughtful, often not giving me all that I wanted, but always giving me the confidence that my concerns were heard and considered, with a well-reasoned explanation for the decision,” said McFarland.
Veteran defense attorney, Jeff Cohen, agrees. “On those occasions when you go to Mark, because the trial deputy or their supervisor/unit head opposes the resolution you are proposing, it becomes clear immediately that Mark has really studied the case. He has a command of the details.”
Mark makes things look easy. He has an “aw shucks” way about him that belies how much he has studied a subject and his decades of experience in and out of the courtroom. He doesn’t call attention to himself. Rather, the quality of his work and his intellect make Mark a stand out in the criminal justice arena.
According to Tom McBride, a former King County deputy prosecutor and longtime executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, those whom Mark mentored were lucky. “We quickly found that he cared as much about how we were doing as what we were doing,” McBride recalled. “What I treasured most about Mark was his support when things were going well, and he was really great when things were difficult, too.”
Jeff Baird, a veteran homicide prosecutor for King County, added, “Mark was an exceptional colleague and supervisor. Congenial and modest, he was easily provoked to thought, and thought-provoking. He challenged our accepted wisdom and his own. Mark had an abiding interest in the larger picture, the intersection of work and life. He was always mindful of our great responsibilities as prosecutors, but also aware of our limitations and the dangers of self-importance.”
Larson turned to Baird when the King County Sheriff’s Office arrested Ridgway for the series of murders he committed starting in the 1980s. Mark was an integral part of the “Green River Killer” case. He helped manage the extraordinary logistics created by Ridgway’s plea deal, which included a quiet move from the King County Jail to an office building by Boeing Field where detectives and prosecutors interrogated him for months. In collaboration with this team, Larson and Baird helped to ultimately get the corroborative evidence needed to hold Ridgway accountable for 49 murders.
Beyond his excellence at managing difficult individual cases within his office, Mark is also a nationally known leader in criminal justice innovations and reforms. Former Civil Division chief deputy turned Seattle City Councilmember, Sally Bagshaw, notes that Mark has been a great bridge between King County and the rest of the state. “He’s always known that what might work in his office may not work in other counties. Mark listens to everyone, respects everyone and in return, he has been acknowledged as a leader in tackling the tough issues facing all of us.”
Mark as a Human Being
As he grew into his professional role, the internal Mark Larson started to shine through. Using that one-on-one ministerial approach he learned from his dad, Mark excelled as a mentor and friend no matter what side you were on.
“I first met Mark 30 years ago in court when he was the trial prosecutor on a horrible sexual assault case I defended,” said Jan Olson, criminal defense attorney with Ellis Li McKinstry. “He resembled the pastor at Seattle University’s Presbyterian Church, and I asked him if he was related to Bruce Larson. His warm ‘yes’ started an odd, but strong friendship. Odd because Mark is a dyed-in-the-wool career prosecutor, sincerely believing his calling to protect and serve others through his work; while I am a lifelong defender of those accused of criminal wrongdoing.
“Though on opposite sides of the law, Mark and I learned we had much in common,” Olson continued. “We had similar tastes in music and started ‘trading tapes,’ which of course dates us. We had shared beliefs in family and faith. He is a caring, devoted father who is proud of his two adult children.”
Ray McFarland had similar experiences. “He is a genuine friend. We follow local sports, went river rafting and camping, grabbed a beer or a bite.”
Mark’s generosity extends to friends and total strangers. Jeff Cohen: “He gives his time to the community by volunteering with organizations such as the Union Gospel Mission and religious groups. But to be Mark’s friend is to know that you always have someone who is there for you. On more than one occasion our plans to get together changed because Mark was going to the hospital to see a friend.”
What’s Next for Mark?
Mark’s plans around retirement were catalyzed by a recent sabbatical he earned from the PAO. He and several other adventurous peers took their motorcycles to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for a few weeks and that experience convinced him that more adventures awaited him outside the office. “It’s the best job I’ll ever have,” said Mark. “But it’s not the only thing I ever want to do.”
It’s probably no surprise that with Mark’s interest in the law he has no plans to retire in full. He will be an adjunct professor at Seattle University and co-teach a course called “Wrongful Convictions” with Cohen this spring.
“I’ve known Mark for more than 30 years and we had occasion to try a case against each other when we were both young attorneys, and again when we were both much older and wiser,” Cohen noted. “I consider Mark a good friend, something I would never have thought possible when I was young and saw every prosecutor as an enemy.”
About their upcoming time in the classroom, Cohen added, “In the course of preparing the syllabus, I was taken aback at how much Mark knew about the subject. I found myself telling friends that I was going to have to ‘up my game’ to avoid looking foolish standing next to Mark.”
Mark has been an exemplary prosecutor, loyal friend and inspired leader. While we will miss his daily presence at our office, he has helped build a lasting culture of professionalism, excellence and compassion for others at the PAO. If you see him out on the road, he’ll be on his bike. Happy trails, Mark.