Ridgway plea deal stirs up attorneys

Death penalty: Challenges in court arising more frequently

January 13, 2004 

With Green River Killer Gary Leon Ridgway in prison for life, legal fallout from the plea bargain that spared his life has come back to haunt some Western Washington prosecutors.

Attorneys for three men in two murder cases in King and Snohomish counties have filed motions citing the unfairness of pursuing the death penalty against their clients after King County prosecutors agreed not to execute Ridgway in exchange for his cooperation. Ridgway admitted killing 48 women.

Experts say more legal challenges likely will arise against the state's death penalty.

"The nation's worst serial killer isn't facing death, and my client - a (then) 18-year-old from a disadvantaged background who killed one person - is facing death," defense attorney Rita Griffith said recently. "It just shows how totally arbitrary the death sentence is."

Griffith is representing Charles Champion, charged with killing Des Moines police officer Steven Underwood in November. Prosecutors said Underwood was trying to arrest Champion on outstanding warrants when the teen fatally shot him.

Griffith has filed a legal motion requesting that King County Superior Court Judge Anthony Wartnik declare the death penalty unconstitutional.

Prosecutors responded with their own motion, stating that the Ridgway sentencing had no bearing on Champion's case and that the constitutionality question is up to the Washington State Supreme Court to decide.

Wartnik is expected to make a decision soon. Champion's trial is scheduled for May 19.

In Snohomish County, lawyers for two men charged with aggravated murder in the death of an 18-year-old woman cited a similar fairness argument in winning a delay in their case.

Prosecutors have put off deciding about whether to seek the death penalty against John Anderson, 20, and John Whitaker, 22.

Anderson and Whitaker are charged with stuffing Rachel Burkheimer into a duffel bag, driving her to a remote spot and shooting her to death in September 2002. She was a former girlfriend of Anderson's.

"I think we're going to find a lot more motions like this in death penalty cases by defense attorneys," said David Nichols, a Whatcom County Superior Court judge.

"By definition, almost anybody else is going to be a lesser criminal than Gary Ridgway. The question is whether it's fair to spare Ridgway and not spare someone who by definition committed a lesser crime."

Nichols, a death penalty critic, said he sympathized with Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who agreed to the plea bargain with Ridgway.

"Of course, Maleng ultimately had to yield to the reality that Ridgway had something extremely valuable to sell - all the information the families of the victims were so desperate to learn," Nichols said.

After Ridgway's arrest in 2001, Maleng vowed not to bargain with him, citing the enormity of Ridgway's crimes.

But the case raised powerful concerns, namely the resolution of dozens of murders attributed to the Green River Killer.

Maleng's office had evidence to charge Ridgway with seven of the slayings. Ridgway said he would cooperate in solving the other murders if Maleng dropped the death penalty.

After talking with victims' families, Maleng agreed to the plea bargain.

Ridgway, 54, pleaded guilty Nov. 5 to killing 48 women over two decades. He was sentenced this month to 48 consecutive life sentences and fined $480,000 - $10,000 for each of his victims.

Mark Roe, a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, said it was unlikely that Ridgway's plea bargain would undo the state's death penalty.

Roe, who won a death penalty case in the late 1990s, said he intended to continue pursuing the ultimate punishment for criminals who deserved it - "as long as the law is in the books."

Many attorneys now questioning the validity of the death penalty are longtime opponents of it, Roe said, and the Ridgway case simply has provided them with another argument.

"The proclamations of the death of the death penalty seem to be coming from people who have been trying to kill it for years," Roe said.

He conceded that the Ridgway plea bargain might become "part of the conversation" of future death penalty cases, but he sided with Maleng in calling the deal unique and saying that it should not be used as a measure for other murder cases.

"He is the worst serial killer in the country's history. He had the greatest number of victims," Roe said. "To apply the circumstances unilaterally to all other murder cases would be silly."

John Junker, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington, said that the capital punishment debate has always been thorny - and that the Ridgway case makes it even more so.

However, he said, the state could continue applying the death penalty because of a provision in the statute says a death sentence must be proportionate to "similar cases."

Junker said that because Ridgway was able to help solve so many murders, it could be legally argued that his case is not similar to any other.

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