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Family letters to prosecutor in death penalty plea ruled 'private'

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         May 13, 2002    

Family letters to prosecutor in death penalty plea ruled ‘private’

  • Records collected by a prosecutorial team trying to determine if serial killer Robert Yates should face a death penalty would discourage families of killers from providing information, an appeals court ruled.

Biographical sketches, letters and family photographs and the accompanying pleas by defense attorneys to keep prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for serial killer Robert Yates will not be made public, a state appeals court in Tacoma, Wash., ruled May 3, affirming the decision of a superior court judge in Spokane.

The court rejected a Spokane Spokesman-Review lawsuit against Pierce County for the records under the state’s Public Disclosure Act, saying that release could have a “chilling effect” that would keep a defendant’s family members from sharing personal information and feelings about the defendant.

The court also concluded that disclosure would intrude upon the privacy of the Yates family. Disclosure of family member comments on how each would feel if Yates were put to death would be “highly offensive” to a reasonable person and would not be of legitimate concern to the public, the court ruled.

Yates’ prosecutors said disclosure of the 91-page “mitigation package” must be confidential to ensure that prosecutors have all information favorable to the defendant in order to decide whether to ask for the death penalty. They also argued that confidentiality would preserve the privacy of Yates’ family

Robert Yates, a career Army helicopter pilot and father of five, in October 2000 was sentenced to 408 years in prison for 13 murders in Spokane, Walla Walla and Skagit County. Most of his victims were women involved in prostitution or drugs.

Yates struck a plea bargain in those cases to avoid the death penalty. However, Pierce County has charged him with aggravated murders of two more women. Pierce County prosecutors, who say they were not part of the plea agreement, are determining independently whether to seek the death penalty at Yates’ trial in June.

Spokesman-Review reporters Bill Morlin and Jeannette White spent seven months investigating Yates, interviewing his family and talking to law enforcement officers and others for a 31-part series republished as a book titled “Bad Trick: The Hunt for Spokane’s Serial Killer.” The Yates murders were also subject of a Mark Fuhrman book “Murder in Spokane.”

(Cowles Publishing Co. v. Pierce County Prosecutors; Media counsel: Duane Swinton, Spokane) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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