Overcoming obstacles: Edmonds resident Adam Cornell rises to the top as county prosecutor
Last updated 3/14/2019 at Noon
The American Dream was created with Edmonds’ Adam Cornell in mind.
Overcoming a rough beginning put up for adoption at age 8, shuttled around Washington’s foster care system in more than half-a-dozen foster homes Cornell put his head down, hit the books, learned from mentors, and landed his reward as one of the most powerful people in Snohomish County.
Cornell, 46, is into his third month as Snohomish County prosecutor an elected position after more than 16 years as deputy prosecuting attorney. He ran unopposed in the general election in November after longtime county prosecutor Mark Roe who endorsed Cornell’s election stepped down.
Cornell’s a lifelong Democrat and candidates must state a party preference when filing for the office but the daily work of a prosecutor is meant to be nonpartisan. “The decisions I make in cases and administering justice are not based on party,” he said. “They are based on what is the right thing to do.”
Cornell’s ascension comes as no surprise to many in Edmonds, where in 2015 he was one of 10 who applied to be named to Edmonds City Council after Strom Peterson won his first term in the state Legislature. Councilmembers selected Mike Nelson over Cornell and eight other candidates.
It was a different story when Cornell announced his intention to run for the county prosecutor’s position. He was endorsed by all seven Edmonds councilmembers, as well as Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan, Rep. Peterson, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self and Sen. Marko Liias.
“I have known Adam for several years, and know him as a strong, fair-minded person,” Earling said when offering his support. “His years and experience in the prosecutor’s office will serve Snohomish County well.”
On a recent casual Friday at the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office in Everett, Cornell wore a button-down shirt he would put on a tie and jacket for a photo shoot. He’s a jogger, so he’s fit and trim. He has a striking resemblance to actor Jon Hamm.
As prosecutor, Cornell is the leader of the largest public sector law firm in the county. He oversees 62 deputy prosecuting attorneys in the criminal division, 28 in the civil division and seven in the family support division. There are also about 100 support staff.
In addition, along with Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, Cornell is the chief law enforcement officer in the county.
All felony crimes in the county have Cornell’s name on charging documents, which means he can review evidence and decide whether or not to charge a suspect. But with an abundance of cases, Cornell rarely does that, instead relying on his team of deputy prosecutors.
He also oversees many misdemeanor crimes, but not for those from Edmonds. The city has its own prosecutor, the law firm of Zachor & Thomas.
“I’ve spent my entire career on the criminal side, so I’m still learning on the civil side,” Cornell said. “That involves contracting, land use, tort litigation and employment law, the more classic law firm part of the job. Broadly, as a prosecutor on the civil side, I represent the county in all civil matters.”
Deciding to charge a person for a felony crime is, of course, of utmost importance to Cornell.
“In order for my office to bring criminal charges against somebody, we have to believe that there are sufficient facts that meet the elements of the crime,” he said. “It’s to a degree that we believe we can prove the case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard in our criminal justice system.
“And so we don't charge people with crimes because we think something happened. We charge people with crimes because we believe there is sufficient, admissible evidence that meets the law to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Cornell said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is America. This is really important.”
Cornell’s early years were tough.
“My mom was an alcoholic and drug addict. Plain and simple,” he said. “My father was also an alcoholic, and used to beat the crap out of my mom. My dad left us when I was 5, and I never saw him again.”
Cornell was the youngest of four children, who grew up in Whatcom County. He continues to keep in touch with his sister, Alex, who attended his swearing-in ceremony in January.
“Like many children placed in foster care, it was not easy for us to keep in touch, but we did, and our relationship has endured as adults,” Cornell wrote on his Facebook page last year.
Struggling with addiction, Cornell’s mother gave him up for adoption at age 8. Luckily for Cornell, he was placed for a while with a woman named Stella Mae Carmichael, who was 65 at the time and cared for hundreds of foster children in her lifetime.
(His last contact with his birth mother came in 2001, but Cornell said they have since lost touch.)
Today, he acknowledges those who encouraged him as a foster child mothers and fathers, teachers, mentors and helped him learn about life. Cornell bounced from home to home until he was adopted at age 14 by Randy Stubbs, the baseball coach at Edmonds-Woodway High School and campus supervisor at Woodinville High School.
Cornell went on to become the student-body president at Woodinville High. But he eventually found himself without a family again.
“Three weeks before graduation at Woodinville High, my father committed suicide,” Cornell said. (Stubbs hanged himself in an equipment shack at the old Edmonds High School.) “I had so many struggles as a kid. But I also had wonderful people who gave me so much. I want to honor the sacrifice of all people who believed in me.”
When it came time for college, Cornell traveled east, graduating magna cum laude and earning a degree in government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1995. He then joined the Peace Corps and served in Georgetown, Guyana.
During his two-year stint as a youth development volunteer, he established a program at a Guyanese prison aimed at reducing recidivism among youth offenders and recovering substance abusers.
Returning to the West Coast, Cornell was adopted at age 23 by Ann Ramsay-Jenkins, co-founder of the College Success Foundation and longtime contributor to philanthropic causes in the Northwest. They met at a United Way luncheon, and Cornell said he was happy that she wanted to adopt him, saying he never gave up hope that he would have a family of his own.
Cornell went on to earn a law degree in 2001 from Lewis & Clark Law School College in Portland; he was selected by faculty to be a member of the school’s honor society. While becoming a lawyer, he was a law clerk for the Juvenile Rights Project in Portland, where he drafted a scholarship bill for foster children.
Cornell’s entry into Snohomish County law came in 2001 when he became a judicial clerk for Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair, an Edmonds resident who recently retired.
“She pointed out a place on Pine Street that was for rent,” Cornell said, “so we moved from Silver Lake down to Edmonds. It was Ellen who really is responsible for bringing me to Edmonds. And the work in Superior Court put me in contact with people in the office, where I made connections. People knew Ellen and my work, and I’d like to think that people thought I had a good head on my shoulders and a good temperament for the work.”
It didn’t take long for Cornell to become a deputy prosecuting attorney, a position he held from 2002 through 2018. During that time, he also was on loan to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle as a special assistant attorney, prosecuting federal drug trafficking, firearms, and financial crimes.
Of note, Cornell was the prosecutor in the office’s participation in Operation Coronado, a national strike against the notorious La Familia drug-trafficking cartel involving 15 indictments in the Seattle area.
During his tenure at the prosecutor’s office, Cornell was integral to not only prosecuting some of the highest profile criminal cases, but also to expanding alternative justice programs, especially those aimed at helping people suffering mental illness and addiction crises receive treatment instead of costly and ineffective incarceration.
Cornell said he views these types of alternative sentencing and treatment programs as critical not only for improving criminal justice, but also for reducing low-level property crimes connected to the opioid epidemic, the latter being one of his priorities.
In 2016, a defining case for Cornell who said he wants to continue to be a voice for supporting common-sense gun laws, including enhanced background checks and raising the age limit to buy military-style rifles came with the triple murder of three Kamiak High School students at a house party in Mukilteo. Another student was injured.
They were the city’s first homicides in 14 years.
Cornell was one of several senior deputy prosecutors called to the scene of suspected homicides to review search warrants and to offer legal advice to police.
“I was not on homicide duty when the call came on the Mukilteo case,” he said. “The reason I got it was because Mukilteo PD had not had a homicide in so many years that the detectives called the on-call prosecutor who handles non-homicide cases, a different assignment.
“I was supervising a deputy prosecuting attorney who got that call. She appropriately called me for assistance because it was her first time on duty, and she had never handled a homicide before.
“It was tragic. I got called at about 1 in the morning. Being at the scene of that mass shooting seeing the aftermath and what an AR-15 can do profoundly affected me.”
Cornell consulted with the affected families of the Mukilteo shooting in the days after the murders.
A former Kamiak student, Allen Christopher Ivanov, was convicted of the shooting and sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
“It was that experience that really motivated my support for being a voice for gun violence prevention,” Cornell said. “I was always for common sense gun reform, but it moved me to be a greater voice.”
Deciding on charges
A Dec. 14 homicide at the Edmonds Senior Center helps explain how prosecutors decide on charging suspects.
Alexander Rhodes, 23, was shot and killed during a private party, and Edmonds police said at least two different guns were used in the incident, but none were recovered from the scene. Detectives received varied amounts of cooperation from those who were there on the night of the shooting.
Two suspects were arrested. But the 21-year-old shooting suspect was released from Snohomish County Jail; the other person arrested, also 21, was released after posting the $10,000 bail.
The incident occurred before Cornell became prosecuting attorney. But he explained how suspects are or are not charged, as law vests prosecuting deputy prosecutors and the prosecutor with the power to charge someone with a crime with a stroke of the pen.
“We have to be careful and thoughtful, and we have a high standard to meet and bringing charges,” he said. “Regarding the senior center case, does that mean if charges are not brought forward that it's over? Sometimes in more complicated and more serious cases, it takes time to put everything together. So we cannot make a rush to judgment, right? We have to make sure that we have all the facts either in supporting the charge or not, because there’s usually a deadline where you have to make a charge to keep a person in custody.”
The standard for police arresting a suspect is probable cause.
“We’re dealing with proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher standard,”
Cornell said. “Police arrest people all the time. They get booked into jail, and they may be held for a two-week period, but we may not be able to charge him into the Superior Court with a felony because the investigation is ongoing.
“The bottom line is we have that standard discharge. And, ethically, I cannot charge somebody with a crime where I don't believe it meets that standard. It would be unethical for me to do that. And that's exactly as it should be. We don't want to live in a world where prosecutors can charge people with offences just because, well, maybe we think something happened.”
Life outside the courthouse
You might see Cornell around town doing two things he enjoys: running and bird watching.
For a picture accompanying this story, Cornell agreed to jog uphill to Yost Park from his home on Dayton Street this after completing an 11-mile run.
“I’m a runner,” he said. “That’s what I do. Folks in Edmonds should see me out there with some regularity.”
He runs in the Beat Brackett 5K on July 4 he placed third last year in his age group after finishing first the year before. He’s run and finished the famed Boston Marathon twice, including in 2013 when two bombs killed three people and injured hundreds.
Cornell finished the race about an hour before the bombs exploded near the finish line.
When not running, Cornell considers himself an amateur bird watcher.
“Edmonds is a great place for bird watching,” he said. “It’s got the Puget Sound Bird Fest and the birds down at the marsh. I’ve also volunteered for the Audubon Society’s annual bird count. It’s all therapeutic for me.”
Cornell serves on several boards and committees, including for the Edmonds Community College Foundation, Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center and Victim Support Services.
During his first three months in office, Cornell said his biggest accomplishment so far has been the county’s filing suit Jan. 28 against Purdue Pharma the maker of OxyContin their national distributors, and their close associates in Snohomish County “in an effort to hold them accountable for poisoning our community and fueling the opioid crisis.”
Challenges? Cornell goes with a baseball metaphor.
“In any leadership role there are always unexpected curveballs,” Cornell said. “My team and I have been agile in facing unexpected challenges, and collaborative in problem-solving. The curveballs will undoubtedly keep coming, but my team and I know how to keep our eye on the ball.”
One of those curveballs surfaced in January, when a former administrator who worked under former prosecutor Roe, Chief of Operations Bob Lenz, claimed that Roe oversaw a hostile workplace filled with sexually charged talk. Earlier this month, Lenz filed suit in King County Superior Court against Snohomish County.
Although the suit’s claims occurred before Cornell took over, Cornell agreed to discuss the case in response to a query from The Daily Herald in Everett, which he shared with the Beacon.
“Mr. Lenz’s claims are focused upon the comments and other conduct of my predecessor, and frankly describe conduct that is highly inappropriate in any workplace,” Cornell wrote. “I consider it particularly important that a prosecuting attorney’s office, which the public looks to for the enforcement of the laws, must operate at the highest level of professionalism and respect.”
Lenz is still employed by Snohomish County, but Cornell said his last day will come at the end of this month. In November, Cornell told Lenz who is not an attorney that it was in the best interest of the office and community to have an attorney in the chief of staff role, a role in which he supervises attorneys.
Lenz said Cornell’s decision was due to his age Lenz is 61 but Cornell said that was not the case.
Remembering his past
Cornell said he never forgets where he came from, how he was forced to embark on his life path with the help of family and mentors. He especially credits Terry Freeman, director of the Kirkland-Redmond Boys & Club, which Cornell attended.
In 1990, Cornell received the Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year Award in Washington, D.C., which earned him a $15,000 scholarship. In his corner office at the courthouse, he keeps a framed picture of himself accepting the honor with President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office. Freeman was there with them.
Cornell’s super busy now, but will still find time to volunteer and speak to child advocacy groups.
“I will continue to speak on behalf of organizations that do good work for children in the foster care system,” Cornell said. “I’ll continue to be an advocate for children and families.”