OLYMPIA – By the time Arlene Roberts’ killer came up for sentencing, the 80-year-old woman had been dead more than three decades, and there were no friends or relatives left to speak for her in a right Washington guarantees to victims and their families.
So King County Sheriff’s Detective Scott Tompkins, who cracked the “cold case” in 2010 by tracking a fingerprint left at the scene to Ronald Wayne MacDonald, spoke. He argued that MacDonald, who accepted a plea bargain to second-degree manslaughter to avoid a trial on first-degree murder, should get a stiffer sentence than the agreement stated. Roberts was strangled with a blouse and a hairnet, and died “a horrific death,” he said, producing photos from the crime scene in the elderly widow’s trailer.
Judge Harry McCarthy gave MacDonald five years in prison, rather than the five-year suspended sentence in the plea bargain. MacDonald asked to withdraw his plea or have the judge stick to the plea bargain. McCarthy said no; so did the appeals court. But last month a divided state Supreme Court said MacDonald is entitled to withdraw his plea if the agreement isn’t honored. Investigation officers can’t undermine a plea deal with unsolicited remarks on behalf of a victim, the majority said.
But Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, thinks for victims like Roberts, who have no one else to speak for them, officers should be allowed to speak. A new bill he sponsored would add that exception to state law, and keep the court from overturning sentences under similar circumstances in the future.
At a hearing on the bill Tuesday, everyone agree such cases are unusual. The deputy prosecutor, Kristin Richardson, said the case was plea bargained down because there were no living witnesses and problems with some of the evidence. MacDonald’s DNA was found at the scene, but it was contaminated by mishandling, she said, and he could claim he burglarized the trailer but didn’t kill Roberts.
“The difficulty with cold cases is trying to try them 30 or 40 years after the fact,” she said.
Tompkins told the Senate Law and Justice Committee he wanted to speak at sentencing because the process was so sterile: “I wanted to add some context.”
But a spokesman for the state’ county prosecutors said it might be better to have a victim support advocate speak after being briefed by an officer. “Allowing the investigating officer to be that voice is always going to be trouble,” Tom McBride said.
Padden said work is still being done on the bill, which might not be ready until next year’s session.