June 1, 1995 in Nation/World

Killer Cites Victim’s Mercy Burger King Murderer Says Jury Should Have Been Told Calbreath Opposed Death Penalty

William Miller Staff writer
 

Would Blake Pirtle be on Washington’s death row today if the jury knew one of his murder victims opposed capital punishment?

The Spokane Valley man’s lawyer, Joan Fisher of Genesee, Idaho, doesn’t think so.

“One of the jurors may well have been compelled to exercise mercy,” Fisher told the Washington Supreme Court.

During oral arguments Wednesday, justices frowned as Fisher argued “the voice of the victim” was wrongly shut out.

Grim-faced relatives of the victims attended the three-hour hearing at the Temple of Justice.

Family members are following the appeals closely, in part to avoid being shocked later should Pirtle, 26, beat the odds and win a new trial due to a technicality.

A decision is at least a year away, but the high court appeared to give little credence to the condemned prisoner’s sweeping, 14-issue appeal.

Several justices used the word “brutal” to describe the May 17, 1992, murders of two Burger King employees in the Valley.

While robbing the Argonne Road restaurant about a mile from his home, Pirtle killed two former co-workers: 20-year-old Dawnya Calbreath and 24-year-old Tod Folsom.

Pirtle knocked Calbreath unconscious with blows from gallon-sized cans of paint stored on the premises, then twice bent over her body to repeatedly slash her throat. Medical evidence indicated at least 16 separate cuts.

Folsom begged for his life before Pirtle crushed his skull twice with a 15-pound fire extinguisher.

Afterward, the killer sawed away at the second victim’s throat, using a knife and hacksaw.

During his 1993 trial, Pirtle confessed to the bloodshed, saying he was strung out on drugs and “snapped” while grabbing cash from the till.

He was convicted of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder and was later sentenced to death by the same Spokane County jury.

During the penalty phase of the trial, defense lawyers sought to use a college essay opposing capital punishment as a plea for mercy.

The two-page essay was penned by Calbreath in May 1991 for a sociology class at Spokane Community College.

Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue refused to admit the homework as evidence during sentencing, ruling it “irrelevant.”

On Wednesday, Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Korsmo said Donohue made the right call.

“A crime victim’s political views simply aren’t relevant,” Korsmo maintained. “… It’s just not proper evidence.”

If it had been admitted, Justice Gerry Alexander questioned whether it would have had the desired effect.

Jurors might have been outraged by Pirtle’s attempt to further exploit the young woman he killed, Alexander said.

“I don’t think I would have touched this with a 10-foot pole if I was a defense attorney,” he said.

The court’s newest member, Rosselle Pekelis, said Calbreath’s essay contains the caveat that her view might be different “if one of my loved ones was murdered.”

“Presumably, she loved herself as well,” Pekelis said.

Among her other legal challenges, Fisher took aim at the judge’s decision to let the jury know about Pirtle’s assault conviction stemming from a Montana bar fight.

Eleven days before the Burger King carnage, Pirtle pleaded guilty to the assault.

The jury in the murder trial was “prejudiced” by that information, according to Fisher.

But Justice Phil Talmadge said the prior conviction seems “perfectly admissible” because it refuted the defense theory that Pirtle is rarely violent.

Fisher also claims her client’s death sentence is excessive punishment, based on Pirtle’s abuse-filled childhood and below-normal intelligence.

Korsmo, however, cited “the savagery of the crimes.”

“Blake Pirtle is near the top of his class,” compared to other brutal killers in Washington, Korsmo wrote in his legal brief.

Pirtle is one of eight Washington State Penitentiary inmates on death row.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

Murder victim’s thoughts on death penalty

A year before she was murdered, Dawnya Calbreath wrote a school paper about her opposition to the death penalty. Here is an excerpt:

“I always get frustrated when thinking about the death penalty. It is very hard for me to accept the fact that our government has given itself the power to play God. How can a judge and a jury see evidence and decide whether or not someone gets to live or die?

“Sometimes evidence is tampered with or presented with bias. Who is to say that someone is to lose their life when the possibility of foul play is always an issue?

“On the other hand, these people that are getting the death penalty for murder are doing the same thing as our system. They are letting some live and killing others. However, I still remain against the death penalty because I don’t think that anyone should have that right.

“I cannot say how I would feel if one of my loved ones was murdered. I hope that I would remain with the same position, but unfortunately I don’t think that is true. I think that most people, due to the anger and hurt that they are feeling when a close one dies, would be in more support of the death penalty then those who are not affected directly.”

The following fields overflowed: KEYWORD = CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, TRIAL, MURDER

This sidebar appeared with the story: Murder victim’s thoughts on death penalty A year before she was murdered, Dawnya Calbreath wrote a school paper about her opposition to the death penalty. Here is an excerpt: “I always get frustrated when thinking about the death penalty. It is very hard for me to accept the fact that our government has given itself the power to play God. How can a judge and a jury see evidence and decide whether or not someone gets to live or die? “Sometimes evidence is tampered with or presented with bias. Who is to say that someone is to lose their life when the possibility of foul play is always an issue? “On the other hand, these people that are getting the death penalty for murder are doing the same thing as our system. They are letting some live and killing others. However, I still remain against the death penalty because I don’t think that anyone should have that right. “I cannot say how I would feel if one of my loved ones was murdered. I hope that I would remain with the same position, but unfortunately I don’t think that is true. I think that most people, due to the anger and hurt that they are feeling when a close one dies, would be in more support of the death penalty then those who are not affected directly.”

The following fields overflowed: KEYWORD = CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, TRIAL, MURDER


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