AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Washington pauses to reflect on death penalty

Moratorium relieves some victims’ loved ones, opens dialogue on cost and effectiveness of executions

Death Penalty

They talked about nail polish and new haircuts. They were funny women. Smart, even. They were women with hopes, dreams of nights when they wouldn’t have to duck inside the cars of men offering them money for sex.

That’s what Lynn Everson remembers of the women who were found half-naked and dead, flung into roadside ditches on the outer edges of Spokane, Wash.

“It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times,” Everson — who has run the Spokane County needle exchange program for the past 25 years — said of that time, during which a shelter called Hope House opened, shining a light into the darkness for desperate prostituted women.

Prosecutor Jerry Costello makes closing arguments in 2002 and asks for the death penalty for Spokane serial killer Robert Yates, with photos of some of Yates’ victims on display.
AP Photo/Bruce Kellman

It’s fitting, given that Spokane — a city closer to Idaho than to Seattle — is an almost comically Dickensian place, a town where towering hillside Victorians look down their noses at the boarded-up slums below. And in the late 1990s, where a serial killer played a modern-day Jack the Ripper to the prostitutes working the city’s infamous Sprague Avenue, a long stretch of road where sex and drugs are easy to come by.

More than once, Everson drove Sprague, handing out clean needles and freshly baked cookies to women, and noticed the same black-paneled van in her rearview mirror.

She now knows that Robert Yates — a military veteran and father of five who confessed to at least 13 murders in Spokane, two in Walla Walla and two in Pierce County, drove that van. For the Spokane murders, Yates found himself with a 408-year prison sentence; for the Pierce County murders — where Everson testified as an expert witness on the lives of prostitutes — he was sentenced to death.

Yates, now 62, is one of nine murderers sitting on death row in Washington. But none of those men may actually see the inside of the execution chamber.

In mid-February, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on executions during his term, saying the “use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied.” 

Gov. Jay Inslee.

“There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death, there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system,” he said, while ensuring that Yates and his fellow death row inmates will hardly ever see the outside of the Washington State Penitentiary. “I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me.”

With the moratorium, Washington joins six other states where the death penalty is on hold. Nationwide, there are 18 states where capital punishment has been abolished. But The Evergreen State’s move to take a step back from the death penalty and weigh its pros and cons also comes at a time when several other states are doing the opposite — going to great lengths to secure untested drugs to carry out lethal injections after the primary supplier, a Danish company, banned American prisons from acquiring the preeminent drug used in U.S. executions.

Though Inslee’s plan was met with the expected mixed reviews — a victory by those against the death penalty and as a gratuitous misstep in the eyes of those who defend it — Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said decisions like Inslee’s are in line with national and global trends on the death penalty.

“It’s sort of withering. The less it is used, the less sense it makes,” Dieter said, pointing to research that murder rates are actually consistently decreasing in non–death penalty states. “There are very serious crimes being committed and very dangerous people out there. But the numbers of those far exceeds what we use the death penalty for.”

Even some of the United States’ most heinous criminals — including Washington’s “Green River Killer,” Gary Ridgway, who pleaded guilty to killing 48 people — are not being executed.

“[Those people] don’t get the death penalty,” Dieter said. “The death penalty is more of a symbol.”

Though capital punishment has always been a part of the United States’ history, its use was suspended from 1972 to 1976, when the Supreme Court found the death penalty was bordering on unconstitutional and qualified as cruel and unusual punishment.

By 1977 capital punishment was slowly being reintroduced by the majority of U.S. states — including Washington, which revised its statute in 1981 so only aggravated, first-degree murder convictions could qualify for the death penalty. Washington has executed five people since. 

From left, Washington’s death row inmates: Davya Cross, Cecil Davis, Clark Elmore, Jonathan Gentry, Allen Gregory, Byron Scherf, Conner Schierman, Dwayne Woods and Robert Yates.
Washington State Department of Corrections

Mark Larranaga, a Seattle private practice attorney and former director of Washington’s Death Penalty Assistance Center, said that’s reason enough to re-examine the state’s policy.

“The reality is, in 40 years we have executed five people, three voluntary — they waived their appeals,” he said. “Forty years is a pretty good chunk of history to do an assessment.”

Larranaga also served on the state’s Death Penalty Subcommittee of the Committee on Public Defense. In its 2006 report, it found that since 1981, there had been 254 death-eligible cases in Washington but just four resulted in executions. (One more person has been executed since the release of that report.)

“History has told us, in four decades of trying to administer Washington’s death penalty, it’s undeniable that we are spending millions and millions and millions of dollars on a product that fails miserably,” he said. “The system — and what it’s trying to do — has failed.”

Even more, some prosecutors in Washington fear that a capital trial — which the committee found to carry an average cost of $470,000 — could bankrupt a county. And though the state has a fund for “extraordinary criminal justice costs,” counties that ask for reimbursement from it rarely see more than a small fraction of their request.

“The yearly allocation is discretionary, and the amount received is typically pennies on the dollar,” a February Seattle Times op-ed read. “That poses a complex question for lawmakers: If the legislature insists on a capital punishment, shouldn’t it pay the cost?”

Karil Klingbeil wanted to tell everyone she felt empty. After each trial, every appeal, every court appearance, she would find a crowd of TV reporters thrusting microphones in her face, asking if she felt closure now that the man that murdered her sister would be executed. What could possibly give her closure, give her brother-in-law his wife back, give the kids their mother?

Would killing Mitchell Rupe make the hurt go away?

When Inslee announced the death penalty moratorium, detractors instantly pointed at the families of victims — people like Klingbeil, whose sister Candy Hemmig was murdered in an Olympia bank by Rupe in 1981. They argue that executing the worst criminals among us gives victims’ families closure.

“That theory that having to have the death penalty somehow equates to justice for the victims — that’s not happening,” Larranaga said. “It’s actually kind of insulting to the cases [where] the death penalty is not being sought. I don’t think those victims of those individuals are any less worthy of seeing punishment.”

Through 20 years of hearings and appeals, Klingbeil advocated for Rupe’s execution. At each court appearance, she would relive the horror of her sister’s death. The bloody crime-scene photos. Her sister’s killer sitting just feet from her.

Mitchell Rupe reads an apology to his victims’ loved ones during his third death penalty hearing in 2000.
AP Photo/Louie Balukoff

“It was a tremendous amount of emotion,” she said. “We heard the same horrible things over and over. It just went on and on and on.”

It grew worse when Rupe made international headlines. At the time of his sentencing, Washington’s primary method of execution was hanging (it has since changed to lethal injection, with hanging as a secondary option) — and Rupe argued in 1994 that he was “too fat to hang.” A judge agreed that Rupe’s 410-pound frame could cause him to be decapitated if hanged and that doing so “would violate human dignity.”

For Klingbeil and her family, all the press showered on Rupe felt like ripping the wound open again and again. After three death penalty trials, Rupe’s sentence was converted to life without parole. He died in prison in 2006.

All that time, Klingbeil was a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, where she taught courses on violence and child development. She became an expert witness in many abuse cases and devoted herself to studying the violence that humans commit against one another. Over the course of nearly 30 years, she realized her effort to see her sister’s killer executed was out of line with her belief system. 

Candy Hemmig, right, with her sister, Karil Klingbeil, center, and their mother.
Courtesy Karil Klingbeil

“My anger began to dissipate, and time handled some of the grief and the sadness,” she said. “Once I was able to get in touch with my resentment and my anger and wanting him dead because it was an eye-for-an-eye kind of thing, I just took a look at what I did professionally. I had been working all my life to combat violence against women and children, in particular. It was my whole way of life. And I really did believe — and I do believe strongly now — that nobody can take another person’s life except in self-defense.

“I had been working all my life to combat interpersonal violence of all kinds and so opposing the death penalty just fell in line with that.”

She went public with her feelings. Almost 30 years after the date of her sister’s death, The Seattle Times published an opinion piece by Klingbeil in which she opposed capital punishment, saying the system had wounded and rewounded her already traumatized family for decades.

“The death penalty should be abolished,” she wrote. “The emotional and financial costs are too great for this country to bear.”

Dick Morgan, a retired superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary and state director of prisons, oversaw three executions during his career. With the news of the moratorium, he wrote of his opposition to capital punishment too.

He was responsible for assembling the staff that carried out executions during his tenure and said his employees always had the right to refuse participation.

“Others had stipulations,” he recalled. “I had one say, ‘All right, I’ll help you out with this, but my wife can never find out or my church can never find out.’”

But even after getting willing participants, Morgan said he still had employees who would go to him after an execution, complaining of nightmares and other post-traumatic stress symptoms. Others asked to be dismissed from the team as executions approached. 

Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Washington State Department of Corrections

“As you get closer to it, the reflection, the self-examination, the reality of the fact that you’re going to have a hand in killing another human being becomes much more real,” Morgan said. “That’s why it’s so difficult to explain to folks — that experience just can’t be conveyed in a debate. And when you start getting closer to it, you think, ‘Do I really want to have anything to do with this?’”

Morgan said none of the men whose deaths he oversaw were good people, yet he felt it was wrong to have to ask corrections officers to kill another human being — no matter how awful their crimes were.

“The three executions I was involved with … were extremely horrible murders,” he said. “When it came to empathizing with the condemned, I just couldn’t get there … The world was better off without them. I had no sympathy for the fact that they were about to die.”

“My struggle with it was part of the large picture of being part of a governmental action of taking a life of one of its citizens,” he said. “When I was young, I saw the movie about the trials at Nuremberg and the famous line ‘I was only following orders.’ Your government can take your life. To me, the world is upside down on the limitations the government should have. You would think … the one thing the government can’t take away is your life.”

Lynn Everson will never forget the steely, dead-eyed glare Robert Yates gave her as she sat on the stand and testified about the vulnerabilities of women on the streets.

Even still, she said, when she received news of the moratorium on executions last month, she felt a sense of relief.

“I think he’s an incredibly sick and twisted individual who kills people, who kills women and then has sex with them after they’re dead or buries them under his bedroom window,” she said. “He killed some folks I really liked.”

But she said she doesn’t want him to be executed. She wants him to be forgotten.

The entrance to the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary.
Washington State Department of Corrections

“I don’t want him to get to be the center of attention when he files appeals. I want him to just sit in a little cell,” she said, pausing for a moment before adding, “forever.”

Klingbeil, now 78, realizes her opinion that the death penalty should be not just suspended but abolished isn’t a popular one among her family members — especially her sister’s children.

“To this day, I’ve never sat down and talked with them about my change of opinion and what that means to me,” she said. “I’d be very happy to do that. I would invite that. Absolutely.

“Now might be a good time to think about that.”

She said her family will forever be shattered by the loss of her sister. Even now, with her sister’s killer dead, Klingbeil said her family can never get off this roller coaster ride.

“That’s why this issue of closure is such a myth, such a falsehood,” she said. “It’s never over.”