Victims' families divided over plea agreement
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:02 PM
"Does a man who preys on some of society's most vulnerable people deserve to die? Or is life in prison appropriate?Family members of Robert L. Yates Jr.'s victims were divided on the question after seeing him tearfully plead guilty last Thursday to killing 13 people and attempting to kill another - all but one of them women, and most of them prostitutes and drug users.The 48-year-old father of five is to be sentenced tomorrow (Thursday) to 447 years in prison, but the plea agreement spares him the death penalty. He could face the death penalty in Pierce County, where he is charged with two additional slayings.Oak Harbor resident Margaret Dettman's daughter, Shawn Johnson, was killed by Yates in Spokane three years ago this month. Johnson, a mother of two, was trying to kick a drug problem and get her life straightened out, but apparently made one terrible choice in getting into Yates' van.Yet neither Dettman or her other daughter, Oak Harbor resident Debra Fine, were in favor of the death penalty for Yates.We don't want the death penalty, Dettman said. If we say we want him to die, we are no better than him.Arguing against the plea bargain after Thursday's hearing was the family of Laurie Wason, a 31-year-old dog breeder whose body was found dumped in an old gravel pit southeast of Spokane on Dec. 26, 1997.There's no sense of relief, said Shari Flores, a sister of Wason who drove 130 miles from Eastern Washington's Tri-Cities to attend the hearing. Mr. Yates took the easy way out. ... It's something we'll have to live with every day.Another of Wason's sisters, Darcy Arcevedo, sent e-mails to the media saying Yates should pay with his life.A sister of victim Shawn McClenahan - a Spokane native and former hospital worker whose body was found dumped near Wason's - agreed Yates should receive the harshest possible sentence.But the sister, Kathy Lloyd, believes life imprisonment is the harshest sentence in Yates' case.I think 40-50 years of never seeing the outside world will be harder on him (than the death penalty), Lloyd said. I think that he would suffer more in the long run. I sometimes think the death penalty for some people would be an easy way out.For Lloyd, there is satisfaction in simply seeing Yates off the streets.If he were able to get out today, I'm almost sure he would be killing again, she said.In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to the dismissal, without prejudice, of a count of aggravated first-degree murder in McClenahan's killing. Prosecutors said the evidence is strongest in that case. The charge could be reinstated if Yates reneges on the plea agreement.Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who engineered the plea agreement with Yates' lawyers, considered the wishes of victims' families in deciding not to pursue capital punishment.A poll his office conducted found 20 various family members supported life in prison, and 11 backed capital punishment.Yates' chief public defender, Richard Fasy, said the plea agreement is in the best interests of the families of four victims whose cases had until this week been unsolved.As part of the deal, Yates admitted to three killings that had not been previously linked to him - a double murder in Walla Walla County in 1975 and a 1988 killing in Skagit County.And Yates also directed investigators to the body of Melody Murfin, a Spokane woman who had been missing for two years and was considered a serial killing victim.But the lack of a body - found Monday in the yard of Yates' former Spokane home - had left Murfin's family agonizing over her fate.Justice has been served in a lot of ways, Fasy said of the plea agreement.For Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk, the deal was the climax of a law enforcement investigation that began more than three years ago and had cost more than $2.2 million by the time of Yates' arrest April 18.Time and money constraints threatened to sidetrack the investigation until DNA and other physical evidence convinced detectives that Yates was their man.Sterk said he and his deputies have mixed feeling about Yates' sentence.The cop in us would have liked to see the death penalty, he said. But we don't get to make that decision ... At this point, I understand how Mr. Tucker went about making the decision, the strategy he used, the logic.Yates' family members left the courthouse without commenting after Thursday's hearing. But his father, Robert Yates Sr., said earlier this week he was pleased his son could avoid the death penalty.I've always been for the death penalty, and I still feel like we need the death penalty, he said. But I will indeed be thankful that he won't get the death penalty. "