OLYMPIA – Karyl Bushell sat in the front row of the state Supreme Court gallery Thursday, watching intently as the high court weighed the death sentence of her daughter’s killer.
It was nine years, almost exactly, from the night that serial killer Robert Yates Jr. shot Bushell’s daughter, Melinda Mercer. He wrapped Mercer’s head in four plastic bags – an autopsy suggested she was still alive – and dumped her nude body in a Tacoma vacant lot. She was 24 years old.
“I want him executed,” Bushell said quietly during a break in the more than four hours of arguments Thursday. “You’ve got to make a stand someplace. All these gals, they were mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmas. They all had lives, even though they had problems.”
Yates, a Spokane factory worker and former military helicopter pilot, wants the high court to toss out his 2002 conviction in Pierce County. A jury there found him guilty of killing Mercer and another woman and sentenced him to death.
Yates’ attorneys say he was unfairly hurt by what they portray as a bait-and-switch plea deal in Spokane, where Yates pleaded guilty to multiple killings in 2000 and was sentenced to 408 years in prison. He would typically lure the women into his car or van, pay them for a sex act and shoot them.
After months of Yates thinking he was negotiating a statewide life-in-prison deal with Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker for 15 murders and one attempt in four counties, Yates was abruptly charged with two of the killings in Pierce County. Unlike his counterparts in Spokane, Walla Walla and Skagit counties, Pierce County’s then-Prosecutor John Ladenburg decided to seek the death penalty.
Tucker and Ladenburg say it was a misunderstanding. Tucker thought he had authority to include the Pierce County cases; Ladenburg says he explicitly told Tucker no.
Regardless, Yates revealed his involvement in the Walla Walla and Skagit murders during those initial Spokane plea negotiations. And those killings – though never prosecuted – were highlighted to the Pierce County jury during their death-sentence deliberations.
Once Yates had revealed his involvement to investigators, attorney Gregory Link said, there was no way to retract it.
“That train had left the station and it was never coming back,” Link said.
Several justices seemed unconvinced that Yates had really been harmed. He could have pulled out of the plea negotiations at any point, some said.
Yates’ lawyers also say his death sentence is unfair. In Spokane, Yates pleaded guilty to 13 slayings in three counties – and got life in prison. In Tacoma, for two very similar killings, he got a death sentence.
“All we have to do is look to Spokane,” said attorney Thomas Kummerow. “You look at two versus 13. The same crimes. … That’s disproportionate on its face.”
He also pointed to the case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, who pleaded guilty in King County in 2003 to killing 48 females. The crimes were extremely similar – most of the victims in both cases were prostitutes, killed by a divorced, middle-age father with stable employment. Yet Ridgway – who killed more than three times as many women as Yates – got life in prison, not a death sentence.
“They’re virtually identical, the same person,” Kummerow said.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander was skeptical.
“If we agree with your argument, we really don’t have a death penalty in Washington unless you kill more than 49 people, is that right?” he asked.
A recent case looked at that very issue: In a 5-4 ruling the court concluded that Ridgway’s murder spree was – hopefully – a unique aberration.
The chief justice also questioned whether killing 15 people makes a killer less deserving of punishment than someone who slew even more people.
“To say he ‘only killed 15,’ ” Alexander said, pausing. “That’s hardly a sentence that should contain the word ‘only.’ “
Other justices said that the entire justice system allows prosecutors, judges and juries discretion in charging and sentencing.
“They may be exercising mercy,” said Justice Susan Owens. “We allow them to do that.”
“It seems to me you’re asking us to peer into the minds of prosecutors,” said Alexander.
The justices gave no indication of how they will rule, and decisions typically take months.
Bushell, seated beside her coal-miner husband, said she’ll see the case through to the end. She said her family – particularly her younger daughter – was devastated by Melinda’s death.
“You can let it just eat you raw,” she said. “But we’ve kind of gotten past that. He’s going to get his in the end, one way or the other.”
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