Death penalty still stands for serial killer Robert Yates

The Washington State Supreme Court has rejected convicted serial killer Robert Yates’ latest request that the court reconsider his death sentence, ruling that he missed a deadline.

The unanimous ruling was released Thursday.

Last year, Yates asked the state’s high court to review his death sentence, saying he had received ineffective assistance from his lawyer.

Justices said he’d filed the petition too late. Under state law, he had one year to file the petition from the date his sentence became final. That passed seven years ago.

Yates’ attorneys had hoped to convince the Supreme Court that his 2014 petition qualified for a deadline exemption, but the high court said no.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge John McCarthy sentenced Yates in 2002 to death for the aggravated first-degree murders of 24-year-old Melinda Mercer, who was killed in 1997, and 35-year-old Connie Ellis, who died in 1998.

Yates, then 60, was convicted in 2000 in Spokane of 13 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. The killings took place in Spokane, Walla Walla and Skagit counties.

He escaped the death penalty by taking a plea deal and was sentenced to 408 years in prison.

In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld Yates’ Pierce County conviction, giving him a year to file any petitions concerning his sentence.

The next year he filed a petition challenging his death sentence on grounds he received ineffective counsel. The petition was denied.

His 2014 petition stated his earlier petition had not included some important claims, specifically that his attorney had not contented that Yates’ trial should have been moved out of Pierce County.

Yates contended this discrepancy qualifies him for an exception to the one-year filing rule.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, notes that six statutory exceptions can override the one-year filing requirement. They include changes in the law, claims of double jeopardy or newly discovered evidence.

Yates claimed he qualified for an exception because of newly discovered evidence. He also stated the court could create an exception for “claims involving ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel in capital cases.”

The justices disagreed, and in a 9-0 vote dismissed his petition.

As for the claim of newly discovered evidence, the justices said, “the only thing ‘new’ here is that Yates’ new attorney has a new idea.” That is not new evidence, the court ruled.

Regarding the ineffective counsel claim, the court said exceptions are “creatures of statute,” and that a new one would have to come from the Legislature and not the court.

David Anderson: 253-597-8670