Special Report

Killer Deal

Brutally murder 48 women, get life in prison. Upside: It saves the taxpayers money.

By 11.13.03

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SEATTLE -- The first phase of the Gary Ridgway murder case is finished, and then some. Ridgway tentatively agreed to plead guilty to 48 brutal murders on the condition that he will not receive the death penalty for his actions. In exchange for a full confession, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Which raises the question: Exactly how many people does a serial killer have to murder in Washington state to receive the death penalty? Forty nine? Seventy three? A hundred and fifteen?

Although they claim they were loath to strike a deal with the serial killer, Washington prosecutors decided that finding the truth took precedence over sending Ridgway to his death. However, King County attorneys admitted that they will never know exactly how many people Ridgway killed. After he confessed to 48 murders he indicated that he may have committed as many as 60 but his memory seems…selective.

The odious Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP) has seized upon the Ridgway case as a valuable tool to bolster their cause. According to the website, "justice means protecting society by segregating violent criminals and providing answers and restitution to victims."

It further explains that over the last 20 years, the state of Washington has only executed four of the 31 individuals for whom it sought the death penalty. Of those four executions, three were volunteers who did not appeal their sentences. The WCADP argues that the death penalty is illegitimate because it does not deter violent crime. Also, that old chestnut, the penalty is "applied arbitrarily and randomly." (To just, you know, anyone on the street.)

And then there's the race card. But WCADP's claims that "the death penalty is applied disproportionately to people of color, the indigent, and sexual minorities" does not apply in this case, or in many others in this part of the Pacific Northwest. According to the Washington State Department of Corrections, of the 77 individuals given the death penalty since 1904, only 12 have been minorities. The 65 others have been Caucasian. And male.

Their proposed replacement for the death penalty is mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The WCADP argues that this solution will not only be more humane (how humane is the rape and strangling death of 48 women?) but will also cost the state less money than lethal injection or hanging.

How to respond? It does indeed cost the state millions to execute a prisoner. The intricate legal proceedings to determine who gets the death penalty can run up a heavy tab. Ridgway's case so far has cost roughly $10.9 million since his arrest in 2001. But aren't the few extra dollars worth spending for some peace of mind?

More than the crimes he committed, what seems to make Ridgway terrifying to the public is his unassuming, almost humble appearance. Monikers like "serial killer" and "Green River Killer" tend to conjure images of greasy, muscle-bound deadbeats, or mysterious loners. Ridgway, however, relied on his small stature, pasty complexion, and a picture of his son, from the second of his three marriages, to put his victims at ease.

But now, as the cash-strapped state rejoices in its fiscal victory, the families of Ridgway's victims are still without their loved ones. Tom Estes is the father of Debra Estes, who disappeared in 1982. He feels betrayed by prosecutors and is disappointed with the plea bargain.

"You go up to these people and you talk to them, and they sympathize with you, and then they turn around and put a knife in your heart," said Estes to the Seattle Times, "They're supposed to be working for my daughter; they're supposed to put this guy to death."

The Washington case is part of a broader trend of moratoriums and new procedural roadblocks that amount to a de facto abolition of the death penalty, without a popular vote. One by one, states are losing the will to execute anyone, even the clearly guilty and truly heinous. If this Ridgway deal is allowed to stand, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the state ever having to face the hangman.

"Gary Ridgway does not deserve mercy, and Gary Ridgway does not deserve to live," stated King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng at a news conference following the recent hearing. Ridgway felt the same way about his victims, but, unlike Maleng, he did not allow them the luxury of bargaining for their lives.

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About the Author

Heather Roscoe writes from Washington state.