Skilled in the courtroom, Mark Prothero was also generous to the community in which he lived.
The Kent attorney was many things to many people, but perhaps the best way to sum him up is to say he was a generous man who left his mark on the legal profession and on every activity to which he donated his time.
“The Kent community has a hole blown in it,” said Todd Gruenhagen, a longtime friend and colleague, who worked with Prothero on many trials, notably the historic case against Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. “He was a giving soul, and that makes it a tough, tough loss to deal with. It’s a terrible, tragic loss.
“Everybody liked him, loved him like a brother,” Gruenhagen added. “I guess you can’t say any more than that.”
Prothero – a prominent criminal defense attorney, civic leader, community volunteer and coach – died early Saturday morning at his Kent home with family at his side.
Prothero, who had waged a two-year battle with lung cancer, was 57.
Prothero is best known as one of the lead defense attorneys in the high-profile case against Ridgway between 2001 and 2003. As co-counsel, Prothero brokered a plea deal that spared Ridgway the death penalty in exchange for the Auburn man confessing to 49 counts of aggravated murder.
News of Prothero’s death jolted co-workers at his Kent law firm.
“It’s a shock,” said Greg Girard, longtime friend, colleague and partner at Hanis Irvine Prothero, PLLC. “It’s devastating, frankly.”
Prothero had more than 30 years of experience in criminal defense. He was on the Washington Supreme Court’s panel of attorneys qualified to defend individuals faced with the death penalty. He defended men and women, adults and juveniles, accused of state and federal crimes, felonies and misdemeanors.
Widely recognized for his expertise on scientific evidence, forensic DNA, mental state defenses and the death penalty, Prothero was an in-demand lecturer at legal education seminars.
Attorneys who worked closely with Prothero described him as the ultimate professional – caring, focused, smart, unflappable.
“He had a wonderfully generous spirit. It pervaded all aspects of his life – the way he practiced law, particularly in the way he treated his clients, who, let’s face it, were always in trouble,” Gruenhagen said. “He was always able to find positive, redeeming qualities in just about every human being he ever met.”
A smart, steady attorney
Prothero excelled in a tough, sometimes emotionally-charged profession, maintaining a steady approach even to the most complex trials.
“He was a very good trial lawyer who also was excellent at negotiating cases for his clients,” Girard said. “He understood the theme, the essence of the case and building a strength of the case as a defense.
“A defense attorney can be a tough job. You’re never perceived as having the white hat on very often, that’s for certain,” Girard said. “It can be a job that can burn you out. You’re dealing with people with serious issues on a case.
“His ability to balance his life with those stresses was something he was very good at,” Girard said. “And he often dealt with it with humor. He had a humorous slant on things, even in difficult times.”
Prothero, pictured, was a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Washington Defender Association, and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, serving on its board of governors from 2003 to 2009. He was a judge pro tem in King County Superior Court and in Kent, Tukwila, Des Moines, and SeaTac municipal courts.
In 2006, “Presumed Innocent” magazine named Prothero and his partner, Girard, Trial Lawyers of the Year. Prothero was also named a criminal defense “SuperLawyer” by Washington Law & Politics magazine in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. The honor recognizes the top 25 criminal defense practitioners in the state, as voted on by other Washington attorneys.
Prothero was willing to help others.
“He was always a great mentor to attorneys as well as at our firm,” Girard said. “And when we used to work as public defenders, he was always the one who would help young attorneys.”
Prothero began his career in criminal defense in 1983, working as a public defender for the Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA). He started off defending people in municipal and district courts accused of such crimes as DUI, shoplifting and domestic violence. He moved on to defend juveniles. In 1987, he joined the felony unit.
While at ACA, Prothero participated in many pro bono projects.
“I hold him in the highest regard. He was a terrific lawyer, a terrific mentor to younger attorneys while he worked here,” said Don Madsen, ACA director, who worked with Prothero for 25 years. “He gave back to the community. He cared about the clients he represented.”
In his first murder trial, Prothero worked on Madsen’s team.
“He was a hard worker,” Madsen said. “He had a sense of perspective that was a great help to him in trying to figure out what was the best thing for his clients and to represent them to the fullest.
“He could see the other side,” Madsen added. “He could acknowledge what the other issues are … he could see the whole picture.”
In 2010, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Prothero to a position on the Washington State Forensic Investigation Council, which oversees the state’s crime labs. He was the first criminal defense lawyer appointed to the FIC.
Prothero was deeply committed to community involvement. He served on several Kent School District committees and on the board of directors for the Kent Parks Foundation. He volunteered at local high schools and colleges, where he spoke about criminal law and law as a career.
“He felt it was important to educate kids,” Girard said.
In 2003, Prothero co-founded the organization, Kent Citizens for Water Safety, in a successful effort to keep the Kent-Meridian pool open. In 2007 and 2008, he chaired the Citizens for Kent Recreation and Aquatics Future, which worked to have a new aquatic and recreation facility built in Kent.
Prothero also was a successful swimmer in the 1970s. He was a record-setting swimmer at Renton High School. He was captain of the University of Washington swim team in 1977 and 1978 and represented the United States in international competitions in Rosario (Argentina), Amsterdam and Paris. He served on the board of directors of the Husky Swimming Foundation and on the Pacific Northwest Swimming Board of Review.
Prothero was the successful swim coach at Kentwood High School from 1997 through 2007, earning State Coach of the Year honors in 2003. He also coached in the Seattle Summer Swim League for Lakeridge Swim Club for many years, as well as Kent Swim & Tennis Club from 1995 to 2008.
“He was a quality coach,” said Dave Lutes, Kent School District athletic director. “He wasn’t worried about money, time, and all those other issues. He was there for the kids. (Coaching) was a passion.”
Prothero is survived by his wife, Kelly, and two grown children. Sean, a legal assistant, is the swim coach at Kennedy High School. Marley, a standout high school and collegiate swimmer and one-time assistant coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, is the coach of the Kent Swim & Tennis Club.
Prothero also is survived by his mother, Shirley Prothero, and brother, Blake Emery.
“The most important thing in his life was the love that he had for his family,” Madsen said.
“He worshipped his family and supported everything they did,” Girard said. “They’re a tight-knit family.”
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said Prothero personified many great things.
“Mark was a loving husband and father. He also was a friend to so many of us in the community because he cared about people and about public service. His life and his values will stand forever as a model for all of us and for the next generation. My heart goes out to his family.”
A celebration of Prothero’s life is Saturday, May 10 at the Kentwood High School Commons, 25800 164th Ave. SE, Covington. The open house is from 1 to 5 p.m.
PHOTO BELOW: Renton High School junior Steve Sholdra, left, stands next to Mark Prothero, a 1974 Renton graduate, before the 3A state meet in 2010. Sholdra, a state champion, broke Prothero’s 36-year-old school record in the 500-yard freestyle last in 2010. Courtesy photo