OLYMPIA — Spokane serial killer Robert Yates is technically correct that the sentences he received for two murders was wrong, but he can’t withdraw his guilty pleas on those two charges, the state Supreme Court ruled today.
Because he challenged his sentence, Yates could now face the death penalty from Spokane County under a section in his plea bargain that allowed him to avoid execution in exchange for a 408-year sentence.
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who is retiring at the end of this year, said today he’ll discuss with staff whether to file the one remaining murder charge that could lead to the death penalty. Tucker’s initial reaction, however, was “I can’t see bringing him over here and giving him another 10 or 15 years of appeals.”
Yates is already under a death sentence for two separate murder convictions in Pierce County handed down after he was sentenced on the Spokane County agreement.
Under that 2000 agreement, Yates pleaded guilty to 13 counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in Spokane County Superior Court, and was sentenced to 408 years in prison after the consecutive sentences for those charges were added.
He received 20 years each for the first two murders, which he committed in 1975. In his appeal, known as a personal restraint petition, Yates said that was before the state revised its sentencing law and the terms were calculated incorrectly.
Rather than getting a definite 20 years for each murder, Yates said he should have been sentenced to a pair of indeterminate life sentences with a minimum of 20 years, which could be reviewed at some point by a Sentencing Review Board to determine the maximum he would serve on those two counts.
Technically correct, the court said in a 7-2 opinion, but the practical effect means the error doesn’t matter.
“Yates agreed to a sentence of 408 years in prison and he should have been sentenced to a minimum of 408 years with a potential extension to a life sentence,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority. “Given the reality of the human life-span, there is no difference between those two sentences.”
In another part of the ruling, however, Owens notes the part of the plea bargain that opens Yates to the death penalty in Spokane County if he appeals his sentence or tries to withdraw any of his guilty pleas. The state had argued that part of the agreement closed off any possibility of a challenge to the sentence.
No, said Owens. Yates still had the legal right to appeal his sentence. But by doing so, the state could now say he was in breach of the plea agreement, file the one remaining murder charge in Spokane County, and seek the death penalty on it.
That presents Spokane County with some interesting philosophical questions, Tucker said. Spokane prosecutors offered Yates the chance to escape the death penalty to get information from him on the locations of many of his victims, which he provided.
“We weren’t talking about saving money,” Tucker said. In talking with the victims’ families, he estimated about two-thirds agreed with sending Yates to prison for life without parole, something Tucker called “death in prison.”
Pierce County prosecutors later convicted Yates on two murders in that county, and his death sentence for those two convictions has been upheld by the state Supreme Court.
But now the death penalty has a new level of uncertainty because Gov. Jay Inslee said he would not sign the death warrant for anyone on death row while he is in office, in hopes of starting a statewide conversation on whether Washington should keep capital punishment.
Tucker said the death penalty was a useful tool in getting information from Yates to solve murders: “Otherwise, they don’t have to tell you anything.”
But if Yates eventually does escape the death penalty, who is eligible for execution, the prosecutor asked: “If you can’t kill the worst of the worst… who can you kill?”