In honor of Women’s History Month last year, Touchmark launched a three-year initiative to identify and recognize exceptional female residents who defied the odds in their professional and personal lives to pursue opportunities that were historically off-limits for women. Please enjoy the story of Patricia Thompson, our first feature of 2021.
Please tell us about your professional background.
I went to St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, for my law degree. I graduated in 1977 and came back to Washington to take the bar. I managed to fail by one point the first time, so I appealed it and won the appeal. After I got admitted to the bar, I put out applications all over the place, but I wasn’t getting any bites.
In July of 1978, I got a call from the prosecutor’s office. I had previously submitted my resume before I passed the bar, but when they called, all they asked was if I’d passed, and since I had by then, I said yes. About a month later, I got a call back to be interviewed. I wore my best suit, which my mom had made—a three-piece suit with a vest, jacket, and skirt, and a blouse with a bow. That was the ‘uniform’ at the time. The next day, I got the call from them offering me a job.
I told them I would call them back as I thought, “Is this really what I want to do?” but realized I was being stupid and I could try it for a while, so I called them back and said I’d be happy to accept the position.
I started in the juvenile court and practiced there for a year. I learned about juvenile law and getting around in a courtroom. It was a great experience. After a year, I moved over to the adult side.
When I was hired, I was the first female prosecutor in Spokane County.
I got a mix of whatever came in the door. They started me off on burglaries and thefts, and those were easy cases because you had “good” victims who were very cooperative.
Then, all of the sudden, I started getting a lot more sex-crime cases. I think they thought (but didn’t say), ‘Well, you’re a woman, and you should be able to talk to women or child victims of sexual assault.’ I became known in the office as the “sexpert” because that was the area of most of the cases I handled.
What was your most memorable case from that time?
In 1981, a task force was created to find the South Hill serial rapist. Finally, they got enough evidence together, and Kevin Coe was arrested. I got to be the prosecutor’s second chair for the trial. We had to bring a jury in from Seattle to try the case. It took about a week and a half to try the case, and we got convictions on four of the six charges brought against him. During the trial, we learned four of the victims had been hypnotized. Coe appealed, and the State Supreme Court ruled we had to retry the case.
Between the first and second trials, Coe’s mother hired a hit man (who was an undercover officer) to take out the judge from the first trial and my boss because they sent her son away to prison. Because my boss and the judge had been targets, the judges in Spokane withdrew themselves. We were assigned a female judge in Seattle, and I became the lead prosecutor in the case with another prosecutor.
We tried the whole case over in Seattle. We had a week-long pretrial hearing on the hypnotism issue of three of the four victims. We were successful and able to have them testify. The trial took six weeks in Seattle. We got convictions on three of the four counts, and again Coe was sent to prison. Upon his release, he was committed as a Sexually Violent Predator to McNeil Island. So that was my big case. People from Spokane may remember it.
That said, the one that I always think of as most memorable was qualifying a little girl from California for a sexual assault case, and I got a conviction that withstood appeal. To my knowledge, she was the youngest child victim (3 ½ years old) that was qualified to testify. That was a real achievement of mine. I was still young and brash. I remember speaking with the little girl over the phone and decided I could get her to testify, so I went ahead with it. She and her grandmother came up from California, and she testified.
How did your career progress over the years?
After 17 years, I was still in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office and had handled all kinds of criminal cases. I was recruited to the civil side of the office. The Public Records Act started being used more, and it became my new area of expertise.
After spending a year in civil court, there was a death penalty case, and the deputy prosecutor handling the case needed some help, so I went back to the criminal side and joined the case about four weeks before the trial. I boned up and became a semi-expert on death penalty law.
After that trial, I realized, “You know, I can do other stuff.”
There was an opening in the attorney general’s office, so I interviewed, got hired, and moved across the river from the prosecutor’s office (after 19 years) to the AG’s office. I started there in 1997 and spent my next 16 years there and did employment law. I represented various State agencies, mainly the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Transportation, and a couple of colleges. My job was to ensure when a state employee was disciplined, the discipline stuck. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to fire a state employee.
Employment law really comes down to the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.
Clients would call and complain about their employees, and my first question was always to see their performance evaluations, and nine times out of 10, there was nothing in the file to indicate anything wrong. Nothing was in writing, and I’d tell them they needed to document what was happening. I’d remind them the whole idea of discipline is to get the employee to do their job. If you’re successful, the employee does their job; they might not ever be the most stellar employee, but as an employer, you’ve done what was needed. That was my approach, and it worked.
Being an attorney was never dull or boring, and it was always interesting.
Why did you pursue law school?
I got an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Washington State University (GO COUGS!), and you either went to law school or into the foreign service, and I didn’t have any foreign language skills, plus it was a way to put off going into the real world for three more years. So, I went to law school and discovered I had a knack for it. That became truer once I started working and figured out I could make my way around a courtroom.
What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? Did you experience sexism or other barriers?
It was a much different time in the late ’70s and early ’80s than it is today. Women put up with things, or we gave it right back. I was the latter.
If they’d try to give me a bad time, I’d give them a bad time right back. I wasn’t going to put up with anything.
I remember one time we were in the library having lunch, and the guys were telling stories, laughing, and telling jokes. One guy went to tell a joke but said, ‘Oh, I can’t tell that joke because Pat’s here.’ I lit into him and said, ‘Don’t use me as an excuse. If it’s that bad, then you shouldn’t be telling it, not just because there’s a woman in the room.’ I wasn’t going to let anyone use me as an excuse for their behavior. I became one of the guys, and I don’t feel they viewed me just as a woman but as a colleague.
I wasn’t a woman; I was a prosecutor. We helped each other out and developed a mutual respect.
I learned to work in different ways to get to where I needed to be with clients. I think this is a skill many women have; we’ve learned ways of doing things to get them done.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you pursued this career path?
When I went to law school, I had this idealized vision of Perry Mason. He was everybody’s hero. But lo and behold, I ended up on the prosecutor’s side and found out, ‘This is really fun!’ There is a lot of seriousness and some life-and-death situations. Trials have effects on both the victims and the criminals. It’s extremely hard to prepare people for what’s going to happen at trial. You have to make difficult decisions. Do you try the case or plea bargain it? There aren’t enough judges and attorneys to try every case. Some decisions were easier than others. They don’t teach you all of that in law school or from Perry Mason.
A lot of it is very tedious work, but it was the best job I could’ve ever had. Every day and every crime was different. I’m so happy I became a deputy prosecutor and then assistant attorney general because they were the best years and the best jobs I could’ve done. It was fascinating. I have a lot of good memories, even though I handled a lot of yucky stuff.
Knowing you can make a difference, knowing you can help someone—you can feel happy with yourself.
What advice would you give to women seeking barrier-breaking careers today?
Learn to use humor to your benefit. You can do whatever you set your mind to. Respect is earned. Show you can do the job and the work because of who you are. Do these things and be authentic. If you are, people will see that, and you will do well in whatever you want to do.
Bring humanity to your position, and you will make a difference. You need to listen and really know how to listen.
What keeps you busy these days?
A lot of my time now is spent caring for my husband, but people in Touchmark will tell you I’m a social person. I decorate the outside of our home for every occasion and put candy out on our door ledge. I used to put out candy when I was working, too. This may sound strange, but you can tell how much pressure people are feeling based on how much candy they eat.
OK, we’re going to need to hear more about that theory.
Ha! When the candy goes quickly, there’s a lot of tension and/or anxiety going on. When it lasts longer, it’s not quite such a necessity; you know things are OK. I enjoy putting out candy for my fellow residents and the staff members here. They’re my new family. It brings a smile to my face when someone says, ‘Thanks for the candy; I really needed that’ or ‘I like the decorations.’ It’s just one of those little things you do to help people. You never know when someone will need it.
Little things that seem small to you may feel big to others and can help make somebody’s day. I spent my whole working life helping people, and it has carried into my retirement.
Thank you to Pat for sharing her story with us.