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Shawn Vestal: Killers’ fates shows injustice of death penalty

Sat., Feb. 15, 2014

It is not hard to understand why someone might want Robert Lee Yates Jr. to die.

I want him to live, miserably, as long as possible. I want him to live his sad, awful, lonely final years in prison, with as many of the “complications” of aging as possible.

Is one of these ends more just than the other? Is either of those wishes the remotely right basis for how we deliver justice? Is whatever’s worst for him best for us?

The recent announcement that Gov. Jay Inslee would suspend executions during his term provides a good opportunity to ponder this. Pondering it in the specific context of Yates, Spokane’s family man serial killer, provides a lot of the reasons for doubting whether the death penalty makes sense. Because the way we do it lacks all rhyme or reason, even in the case of someone like Yates, who deserves it if anyone does.

Yates is one of nine death-row inmates whose executions were put on hold by Inslee’s announcement. Death is Yates’ sentence for killing two women in Pierce County. For killing 14 women in Spokane County, he was sentenced to life in prison – more than 400 years.

A much more prolific killer, Gary Ridgway, is not on death row. Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, was convicted of 48 murders and has confessed to killing nearly 100 people.

If we’re going to kill people as punishment, should it make a little more sense than that?

We’ve been talking about Smart Justice in Spokane recently, and the way we deal with the nonviolent offenders is under the microscope. In particular, a punishment-heavy, lock-em-up approach to nonviolent crime is proving less affordable and less effective every day; working to help people more and punish them less seems to offer promise for reducing repeat offenses and lowering jail costs and helping defendants get their lives in order.

But what about someone who’s beyond such questions? Someone for whom punishment and only punishment may be all that’s left for us to do? What does he deserve, and what do his victims and their families deserve, and what does the public deserve – and are any of the things that are deserved attainable?

A 2009 article in the Journal of Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of criminologists believe the death penalty does not deter crime. Studies in state after state show that the death penalty is massively more expensive than life sentences and that it is applied disproportionately to black defendants. And 141 people have been released from death row in the past 41 years, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. For every nine people executed in the U.S., one has been exonerated, the initiative says.

Yates has admitted or been convicted of killing 16 women in Spokane and Tacoma in the 1980s and 1990s. He later admitted to killing a couple in Walla Walla in 1975, and it would not be at all surprising if he had killed more.

He preyed upon the least-protected people in society with ruthlessness and sociopathic precision, picking up women who were working the streets, shooting them and dumping their bodies. He built murder into the shadows of a routine, domestic life; a retired Army helicopter pilot, he worked at Kaiser, he was married with five children, and they all lived in a large house on the South Hill.

From the start, his case was always one that pressed the question of punishment: life or death? There is no question of his guilt, and once he was arrested there was never much doubt that he would never again be released.

Eventually, Yates pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in Spokane County. He also confessed to a 14th murder for which he wasn’t charged – a lever prosecutors could hold over his head to bring the death penalty back to the table, if he reneged on the deal. As part of the deal, Yates told police where they could find the body of one of his victims: buried under his bedroom window.

Prosecutor Steve Tucker took heat for the deal, but it did something no death penalty case ever will: It closed the case without a million years of appeals. That’s not the only consideration, of course. Prosecutors in Tacoma promptly yanked the rug out from under Tucker’s deal, taking Yates to court on two murder charges and successfully seeking the death penalty.

At the time, a Pierce County prosecutor criticized the Spokane deal before the jury, asking: “Is human life that cheap?”

That’s one of those questions that strikes hard at first – and makes less sense the more you think about it. Kind of like the death penalty itself. Yates didn’t buy any lives. He took them. His punishment will not redeem that in any way whatsoever. We like to say people “pay” for their crimes, but there is no paying for his.

You could kill Yates 16 times, and his crimes would not be paid for.

The sun is setting on the death penalty. It simply cannot stand up to the growing evidence that it is haphazardly and illogically applied. The Yates case is one exhibit.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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