Washington Supreme Court rejects Yates petition


SPOKANE — Serial killer Robert Yates of Spokane, who faces the death sentence as well as multiple life terms, is not entitled to a new hearing or a review of his case, the state Supreme Court said today.

The court rejected Yates’ petition that listed 25 different errors in his convictions, including jury bias, ineffective counsel and procedural errors. Also rejected was a claim that his death sentence was “disproportional” because other persons convicted of multiple murders received life sentences.

None of those claims warrant a new hearing, the court said.

“Yates has failed to establish any meritorious claims,” the majority decision, written by Justice Susan Owens, said in dismissing what is known as a personal restraint petition.

Yates, a Spokane factory worker and former military helicopter pilot, pleaded guilty in 2000 to 13 murders in Spokane County and received a total of 408 years in prison as a result of a plea deal. In 2002, he was sentenced to death by a Tacoma jury for two separate convictions for murders in Pierce County, the 1997 slaying of Melinda Mercer and the 1998 slaying of Connie Ellis.

He has long argued that the plea agreement should have kept him from the death penalty for any murder in Washington State, but the state Supreme Court has already upheld the sentence in the direct appeal from those Pierce County convictions.

In the personal restraint petition, Yates’ attorneys made some of the same arguments the earlier appeal rejected, the court said. He also misrepresents the state’s system of comparing cases where the convicted murderer receives the death penalty to those where a murderer receives a life sentence, Owens wrote. The factors considered in the review — nature of the crime, aggravating circumstances, criminal history and personal history — aren’t vague and Yates knew what they were.

His attorneys argued that Yates’ case should have been compared to that of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River killer, who received life sentences as a result of a plea deal. The court said that comparison was made, but just because prosecutors exercise their discretion to offer plea deals doesn’t make his sentence disproportionate.

Death penalty cases don’t require mathematical precision, Owens wrote. Instead the law says the death penalty can’t be imposed “wantonly or freakishly”. If the facts in a case are similar to some facts in other cases where capital punishment is imposed, the sentence is proportionate.

In his petition, Yates argued that his trial lawyers made several major mistakes, including a failure to present more testimony from family and friends during the penalty phase, before the jury decided he should get the death penalty. But trial counsel said they were leery of calling some of his family members because “most were understandably conflicted” and worried about what they might say on cross-examination. That’s not unreasonable, Owens wrote, because prosecutors could have argued Yates victimized his own family through his actions.

His attorneys also said the Pierce County jury that convicted and sentenced him was drawn from a pool that under-represents the community’s minority population. Statistically that was true, but they didn’t prove those numbers meet the test of not being “fair and reasonable” representation, and the county’s process for selecting a jury pool had previously been upheld.

Yates remains on death row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Yates also claimed his right to a fair and public trial was violated because portions of the jury selection were closed to the public and some jury questionnaires were sealed. The court said the evidence suggests the court was only closed to the public while the panel was being seated, and prospective jurors were questioned in open court and could be challenged based on those answers.

The argument that the state’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional was rejected, based on previous cases that have upheld the law.