Dwayne Woods died earlier this year. According to news reports, the cause of his death was cardiac arrest. Woods, who was sentenced to death in the Spokane County Superior Court in 1996, would likely have died years earlier — and not of natural causes — but for the dedication of his attorneys. For more than the last decade, Woods’ lead counsel was Suzanne Lee Elliott.
Elliott, currently a sole practitioner in Seattle, is one of the state’s most accomplished and resourceful attorneys. Although her case list reads like a veritable “who’s who” of noteworthy cases from the last quarter century, Elliott maintains a relatively low profile. And that is just the way she likes it. Elliott has always focused her energy on the needs of her clients (and the justice system as an institution); fame and personal accolades are of little interest.
While Elliott concentrates on appellate work, she has appeared in courts at every level of the criminal justice system — from Washington’s municipal and district courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She is listed as counsel on appeal on more than 250 state and federal cases, including many cases that have transformed criminal practice throughout the state. In addition, Elliott has represented defendants in eight capital cases in Washington, Alaska and Colorado, winning reversal of the death sentence in several.
Most lawyers adhere to the notion that there is a difference between the skills needed in litigating a case before trial and appellate courts. Unlike most attorneys, Elliott seems to have cultivated all of these skills.
Elliott is a product of the Pacific Northwest. Her parents, both of whom were born and raised in Washington, worked in two of Seattle’s great department stores. After graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Elliott’s father sold furniture for the Bon Marché. After graduating from the University of Washington, Elliott’s mother sold antiques in the Wide World Shop at Frederick and Nelson’s. By chance, the couple met when Elliott’s father was working at a furniture store in Portland and they were married soon thereafter.
Born in Portland, Elliott was raised in Seattle. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, she attended Whitman College and went on to study at the University of Puget Sound Law School, obtaining her J.D. in 1982. While attending law school, Elliott met her husband (and lifetime partner in fighting crime), Louis Frantz. Elliott excelled as a law student. In addition to the hours she spent as managing editor of the UPS Law Review, she worked part time for a private law firm in Seattle.
After finishing law school, Elliott worked as the bailiff for then-King County Superior Court Judge Robert Winsor. In addition to in-court work, she frequently helped Judge Winsor in the research and examination of each day’s legal challenge. Although Elliott held this position for just one year, she considers that time — and the opportunity to work side-by-side with one of Washington’s most revered jurists — as critical to her development.
The following year, Elliott was hired as a staff attorney for the Washington Supreme Court. But her career path took a dramatic change in course after the birth of her oldest daughter, Ruth, in 1985. Frantz, who had been working as a staff attorney at the Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA) in Seattle, requested paternity leave. To help fill the void, Elliott was hired by ACA on a “temporary” basis. The rest, as they say, is history.
Elliott’s temporary position at ACA became permanent after a short time. During her first few years as a public defender, she represented countless individuals in misdemeanor cases. Then, after about three years of trial practice, Elliott was transferred to the RALJ Unit where she handled appeals from the Courts of Limited Jurisdiction.
This was a perfect placement, given Elliott’s experience in the trial courts coupled with her keen interest in appellate advocacy. Most of the RALJ appeals were resolved in the Superior Court. But, when presented with what Elliott believed was an injustice, she would frequently seek review in the appellate courts.
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