KENNEWICK — Katilin Stitt Wilbur was promised her father’s murderer would stay behind bars for life.
Now she’s feeling betrayed.
This month the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board voted 4-1 to recommend clemency for the now 65-year-old David John Lennon.
If Gov. Jay Inslee follows the recommendation, it will mean an end to Lennon’s life sentence without parole for the 1984 murder of Terry L. Stitt.
“I’m feeling devastated,” Stitt Wilbur told the told the Herald after the hearing. “I feel like my dad’s life didn’t matter. We were given a false sense of security by the original court papers.”
The decision followed a three-hour online hearing in which Lennon and his attorneys and friends testified that he was a changed man after 38 years behind bars and following the murder of his own brother.
They pointed to his time spent working in training programs, mentoring other inmates and educating himself.
Lennon also is suffering from an aggressive form of bladder cancer, and he could find better treatment outside of the prison system.
But his victim’s daughter offered her own tear-filled testimony in which Stitt Wilbur talked about the cost of losing her father when she was just 6 1/2 and then attending two clemency hearings.
The board rejected giving him clemency in 2018.
But this time, board members were swayed to offer Lennon mercy, saying that they hoped he would continue contributing to society if released from prison.
“I want the family to understand that I am torn between mercy and justice,” board member Kazi Joshua. “My heart tends to lean toward mercy.”
Board Member Doug Baldwin added that the decision does not absolve Lennon of the trauma he caused Terry L. Stitt’s family or the community.
Board member Rhonda Salvesen was the only member to vote against clemency, saying she was strongly opposed to allowing Lennon to go free.
Killed during a robbery
Stitt, 30, was an Yakima Public Works department employee, who had just received his paycheck on July 3, 1984. He was on his way to pick up his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son from a visit with his ex-wife.
Along the way, Lennon set up a ploy to get him and two teens into Stitt’s car in Yakima, said Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Kristin McRoberts.
He sent a 14-year-old to stand by the side of the road to get Stitt to stop. When he did, Lennon and the other boy got inside as well.
Lennon lied to Stitt about having a grandmother in Pasco that he was trying to reach.
“There are three different points along this drive where Mr. Lennon could have gotten out of the car,” she said. “Mr. Lennon could have walked away at any point, but he didn’t because that wasn’t the plan. The plan is to take car.”
Four hours later, Stitt stopped his car on Interstate 82 about four miles west of Benton City. He was shot several times and dragged about 15 to 20 feet off the road.
He was missing for several days while family members searched for him. He was eventually discovered by a teenager picking up litter.
Lennon, then 27, was arrested six days later at a roadblock in Missoula, Mont., driving Stitt’s car.
He had been released from an Oregon prison two months earlier, after serving six years of a 12-year term for two convenience store robberies and an escape attempt. He was released to prepare for his parole, but didn’t report to his probation officer.
His defense attorneys at the time tried to argue that he was not mentally healthy enough to understand what he was doing.
A jury found him guilty of aggravated first-degree murder. At the time, the charge only came with two possible sentences — life in prison without parole and the death penalty.
His brother’s murder
Lennon and his attorney, Jon Zulauf, the founder of the Seattle Clemency Project, testified this month that he spent a troubled initial stretch in prison, fueled by drug use.
Then in 1989, Lennon’s brother was found shot to death in a Wisconsin field. His car was still running when his body was discovered. No one was arrested.
Lennon said he found himself comparing himself to the unknown murderer.
“I didn’t know how I became the type of person who could do that, to take the life of someone,” he said. “I was meant to be better than that, and I didn’t want to be that person.”
He quit using drugs and became determined to improve himself. He earned three associate’s degrees, worked doing drafting and calling people to raise money for American Cancer Society and American Red Cross.
In his time in prison, he also has worked as a teaching assistant and tutor for Edmonds Community College, became involved in Toastmasters and participates in the Alternatives to Violence Program.
Lennon said one program helped him forgive the person who killed his brother.
“I do know that forgiveness, when I did it, it took a weight off of me,” he testified. “It took a huge weight off. I wasn’t feeling that pain like I did before.”
He believes he can help people outside of prison by talking to people with similar issues to what he was going through.
Several former inmates, a University of Washington professor and other members of the Seattle Clemency Project noted that Lennon has had a positive impact while in prison, and that he was not the same person who killed Stitt.
Lifetime of trauma
But McRoberts argued that the only difference between this year’s hearing and the one in 2018 is his cancer diagnosis.
While Lennon has accomplished good in the prison system, it doesn’t outweigh the seriousness and severity of his crimes.
“I would hope to continue to do the work that he’s doing to try, as he’s saying, to make amends for the horrific crimes that were committed, but I don’t think because you’re doing some good in prison means necessarily that your life sentence should go away,” she said.
Stitt Wilbur said her father’s sudden death left her, her brother and the rest of their family with a lifetime of trauma. She suffered from depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress.
Both of his clemency hearings tore open wounds left by his death. She felt like he has been trying to avoid responsibility ever since he escaped in Oregon.
“Why does David Lennon think he deserves any better than he already got,” she said through tears. “He didn’t get the death penalty, so he already got a reduced sentence. What makes this man think he deserves more?”
She remembered her father driving them along different routes as they traveled back home, and her favorite was going through Chinook Pass where they would stop and feed fish or go fishing. When he didn’t show up she believed he was lost.
When she learned he was dead, she didn’t want to believe it.
“I sat there staring at his closed casket waiting for him to open it and get out,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me see him. … I do remember people trying to hug us. I didn’t want them I wanted my dad.”
Now, her family is pinning their hopes on Inslee. And they have created a Change.org petition with the hopes of pressuring the governor.
It’s unclear when Inslee will address the recommendation.