Special Reports

Maleng defends his Ridgway deal

The prosecutor who struck a bargain to spare serial killer Gary Ridgway's life passionately defended his decision Friday as a state House committee considered bills that would rein in prosecutors' power to make such deals.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng agreed not to seek the death penalty against the Green River Killer in return for his confession to dozens of cases in which the state didn't have enough evidence to prosecute him. As a result, Ridgway gave a lengthy confession in open court.

The plea bargain prompted Rep. Mike Carrell to ponder whether prosecutors should have such leeway, and whether the young women Ridgway killed would have approved of the deal.

"Would that be where they believe justice should be?" Carrell (R-Lakewood) asked as the House Judiciary Committee heard his four-bill package. Two bills would increase victim input in plea-bargain decisions, a third would expand the murders subject to the death penalty and the fourth would ban plea bargains and require prosecutors to seek the maximum penalty in capital cases with more than one victim.

The bills likely have no future in the Democrat-controlled House, but the hearing made for a lively discussion.

Maleng said the decision came after anguished soul-searching and consultation with the victims' families - who nearly all agreed.

"It was based on mercy," Maleng said. "Not mercy for Gary Ridgway, he doesn't deserve to live, but it was mercy directed to the victims and to the families and friends of the victims."

The state had evidence to try Ridgway in just seven slayings, Maleng said. Had a trial gone forward, many families would never have truly known the fate of the other victims, he said.

"I could feel their pain and hurt," Maleng said. "It was like their loss was just yesterday. By an overwhelming majority, they wanted us to do what we did."

Carrell's proposals won't clear the Judiciary Committee, said Chairwoman Pat Lantz, who opposes the death penalty and supports giving prosecutors discretion on whether to seek it.

"There was never any expectation (the bills) would have any chance," Lantz (D-Gig Harbor).

That didn't stop Carrell and others from taking Maleng - a supporter of the death penalty - to task, citing some of the Bible's more vengeful passages.

"God says that the value of a human life can only be measured by the value of another human life, and that the blood of murder victims cries from the ground until the blood of the murderer is shed," said Rep. Lois McMahan (R-Olalla). "So I would like to know how you feel that justice has been done in God's eyes."

"There's all sorts of ways to measure justice," Maleng replied.

Maleng's decision set in motion or re-energized appeals of death sentences for killers whose crimes were arguably less heinous than Ridgway's. But he said he doubts that the courts will find some larger issue in his decision.

However, defense attorneys and death penalty foes who testified seized on the case an example of uneven administration of the death penalty, although they opposed Carrell's proposals for less leeway for prosecutors.