Prosecutors won’t seek death penalty in triple-homicide case

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter

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Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against Brent Ward Luyster, the man accused in a Woodland triple homicide over the summer and attempted jail escape last month.

Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik notified Luyster’s defense team Thursday afternoon of the decision. Golik said his office will seek a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“We fully expect it to go to trial,” he said in an interview with The Columbian.

The decision will be formally announced Monday at Luyster’s scheduled arraignment. Both sides said they plan to go forward with the hearing, which has been set over a number of times while the defense conducted further investigation.

Defense attorney Bob Yoseph said he’s happy with the decision and thinks the prosecution gave “full and fair consideration to the defense’s presentation” against the death penalty.

“I think it’s a good decision for everybody, and now we can go along and try the case,” he said in a phone interview.

Luyster — a 35-year-old known white supremacist — plans to enter not-guilty pleas Monday in Clark County Superior Court to three counts of aggravated first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, first- and second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of a weapon by a jail inmate, first-degree malicious mischief and attempted second-degree escape. Aggravated murder is the only charge in Washington that carries the possibility of the death penalty.

He has been in custody since July for allegedly fatally shooting three people and injuring a fourth at a Woodland home. And he is now also accused of trying to escape from the Clark County Jail the night of Feb. 12 through a broken cell window. The alleged attempt was interrupted by a corrections deputy conducting a routine perimeter check of the jail.

Golik said the alleged escape attempt, which occurred after hearing the defense team’s arguments, had no particular bearing on the prosecution’s decision.

Prosecutors met with the survivor and family of the victims in the triple homicide multiple times, Golik said, to discuss the death penalty process in Washington. Some victims’ families thought justice would only be served through capital punishment, he said. However, the majority agreed they wanted a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

All of the victims’ families were notified of the decision last week.

With a death penalty verdict, there are decades of post-conviction appeals, Golik said, and the decision is usually reversed.

“It’s difficult to deliver justice and closure to victims and family members if you know you’re likely to never achieve a particular result,” he said.

‘Not a normal guy’

In their presentation to prosecutors, Yoseph said the defense made systematic arguments about the state’s history and potential future of capital punishment. They cited Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium on executions while he’s in office, and the cost of death penalty litigation.

However, the defense’s primary argument, Yoseph said, is that Luyster’s behavior likely stems from neuropsychological problems.

“We had substantial and compelling evidence that Brent Luyster is not a normal guy. We felt that we have evidence of substantial brain impairment through a series of repetitive head injuries starting as a child,” he said.

“His whole history of function — being able to get along in society and conform to societal norms — is thought to be attributable to a brain disorder,” Yoseph added.

The other issue raised was former Clark County sheriff’s Detective Kevin Harper’s involvement in the case; he was initially the lead detective. Harper resigned from the sheriff’s office Feb. 10 amid an investigation into a romantic relationship he allegedly had with a heroin user.

Golik said the prosecution has disclosed all of the criminal investigation into Harper to the defense and won’t be calling him to testify at Luyster’s trial. Any issues the defense may raise associated with Harper will be litigated before the trial, he said.

Yoseph is confident the case can be tried this summer, he said, and will discuss it during Monday’s arraignment.