Death Sentence Upheld for Spokane Serial Killer

     (CN) – Robert Lee Yates Jr., a serial killer who admitted to murdering more than a dozen prostitutes, failed to show proof of trial error, the Washington Supreme Court ruled.
     Yates, a decorated former military helicopter pilot, pleaded guilty in 2000 to murdering 13 women in Spokane County and was sentenced to 408 years in prison. Two years later, he was convicted in Pierce County of two additional murders and was sentenced to death.
     Yates’ victims were all Skid Row prostitutes in Spokane whom he solicited for prostitution, then shot in the head after having sex and buried in rural areas.
     A judge signed his death warrant in September 2008, but the Washington Supreme Court stayed the execution to allow the defense to file additional appeals.
     In an en banc decision Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court dismissed 25 grounds for relief presented in Yates’ personal restraint petition, finding that “Yates has failed to establish any meritorious claims.”
     Yates compared his sentence to that of Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, who was spared the death penalty as part of a plea bargain, in which he agreed to disclose the locations of the bodies of his victims. Ridgway was convicted of killing 49 women, but confessed to over twice that many murders.
     “Looking to life cases, Yates suggests that ‘it appears that a confession coupled with a willingness to plead guilty constitutes mitigation of the most persuasive kind,’ specifically pointing to Gary Ridgway’s life sentence and Yates’s life sentence for the 13 murders adjudicated by plea agreement in Spokane County,” Judge Susan Owens wrote for the court.
     “Yates appears to believe that if some capital defendant has received life without parole, sentencing a similarly situated capital defendant to death violates RCW 10.95.130(2)(b),” she added. “But this court has repeatedly rejected the notion that proportionality requires mathematical precision or that the cases ‘be matched up like so many points on a graph.’ Instead, proportionality review involves merely ensuring that the death penalty is ‘not imposed wantonly and freakishly.'”
     The 70-page opinion dismissed claims that the jury underrepresented minority groups in the community, denying Yates a fair jury-selection pool, and that the court was unlawfully closed for portions of his trial.
     Yates also failed to show that he received ineffective counsel when his attorney advised him to plead guilty to the 13 Spokane County murders.
     “In essence, Yates was left with two options that would serve his stated goals: (1) plead guilty in Spokane County and then face trial in Pierce County or (2) delay pleading guilty in Spokane County until the Pierce County trial was concluded. Both options entailed risks,” Owens wrote.
     The first option allowed Pierce County to show the existence of a common plan and admit evidence of the Spokane County murders during the penalty hearing, but it also removed the possibility that Yates would face the death penalty for 13 of the 15 murders, the court found.
     “Even assuming arguendo that [Yates’ public defender Roger] Hunko’s performance was deficient, Yates cannot establish prejudice,” Owens wrote. “Had Hunko investigated all plausible options, he would have been faced with the strategic decision discussed above. Yates has provided no evidence that Hunko would have advised Yates differently.”
     Yates remains incarcerated on death row in the Washington State Penitentiary.

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