Washington high court denies serial killer's plea

Technical error moot due to human life span, court rules

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SEATTLE — The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a petition by convicted killer Robert Lee Yates Jr., who sought to withdraw his guilty pleas in the murders of more than a dozen women, many of them in Spokane.

The court said the 408-year sentence Yates received in a plea deal stands, although there was a technical error in how the sentence was given.

Yates pleaded guilty in Spokane County in 2002 to 13 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in a deal that spared him from the death penalty in those cases.

In his appeal, Yates successfully argued that the sentences for two of the murder counts took place before new sentencing guidelines were issued and were technically calculated incorrectly.

He was sentenced to 20 years for each of the two murders but he should have been given two indeterminate life sentences instead. If that had occurred, a sentencing review board could have determined the maximum he would have received on those two counts.

In the court's 7-2 opinion, however, humans do not live long enough for the sentencing differences to matter for Yates.

"Given the reality of the human life-span, there is no difference between those two sentences," Justice Susan Owens wrote.

Between 1996 and 1998, Yates preyed on prostitutes working in a run-down part of East Sprague Avenue in Spokane. All his victims died of gunshot wounds to the head after they were hired by Yates. The body of one victim was buried in the yard of Yates' home on Spokane's South Hill.

As part of his plea deal, prosecutors agreed to dismiss one count of first-degree murder for the death of Shawn McClenahan in exchange for Yates agreeing not to attempt to withdraw his guilty pleas. Because of this challenge, Yates could now be charged in that case and if convicted could be sentenced to death.

The Spokesman-Review reported that Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said Thursday he'll talk with staff about whether to file the remaining murder charge against Yates.

Yates is on death row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a separate case involving the murders of Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontaine Ellis in Pierce County.

The Supreme Court previously affirmed his conviction and death sentence in that case.