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Thursday, October 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Serial killer Yates sentenced to death

TACOMA — A jury today sentenced serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. to death by lethal injection for the aggravated murders of two women.

The Pierce County Superior Court jury of seven men and five women began deliberating late yesterday. On Sept. 19, the same panel convicted Yates of murdering Melinda Mercer, 24, in 1997 and Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, in 1998.

The 50-year-old father of five is already serving a 408-year sentence under a plea agreement two years ago with Spokane County, in which he admitted murdering 13 other people since 1975. Ten were women who, like Mercer and Ellis, died after encountering Yates as prostitutes from 1996 to 1998.

Pierce County prosecutors refused to sign off on the deal, and brought Yates to Tacoma for trial.

Holly Bartlett kissed a photo of Mercer, her sister, as the jury’s decision was read. Mercer’s mother, Karyl Bushell, said she wanted to hug each member of the jury, and added that she’d visit her daughter’s grave Friday.

"I’m very happy about it," she said. "I wanted him to take responsibility for killing my daughter and Connie."

Voting to send Yates to his death today was the hardest thing some of the jurors have ever done.

Even after a legal grueling process that began in June, even after viewing thousands of pages of documents indicting Yates, even after hearing the wrenching testimony of victims families, it was still an agonizing decision.

"You don’t put a man to death every day," said Bill Warren of Tacoma.

"I felt for his five kids, knowing they would have to go through life without their father on earth," said Launi Hocker of Puyallup. "But in the name of justice, it had to be done. He had to be stopped."

"It was the hardest thing I ever done," said Doug Brunner of Buckley. "They asked us whether we believed in the death penalty and I said yes, but it wasn’t until this morning that I finally realized what that really meant."

The jurors returned with a death sentence against Yates after fewer than five hours of deliberation. After closing arguments yesterday afternoon, the jury returned this morning to discuss the penalty, at noon taking their first vote, which was unanimous.

"Believe me," said Hocker, "There’s no stone left unturned in that jury room. We tried and scraped to find some reason to give him mercy, but we came up empty."

The verdict brought no discernible reaction from Yates, though his father, Robert Lee Yates Sr., and sister, Shirley Hess, cried and comforted each other.

"I think he’s pretty prepared," Yates’ father said.

"More so than we are," Hess added.

Aggravated first-degree murder is the only crime that carries the death penalty in Washington state; life imprisonment without parole is the only other option. Jurors had to be unanimous in ruling for death.

Defense attorney Roger Hunko said he planned to file an appeal as soon as the sentencing is made official on Oct. 9. It would probably be at least seven years before a death penalty could be carried out, he said.

The prostitute slayings took place after Yates left the Army and moved his family to Spokane. His National Guard duties as a helicopter pilot brought him to the Tacoma area during that time.

Yates also admitted killing a young couple out on a picnic near Walla Walla in 1975 and a 23-year-old Seattle woman in Skagit County in 1988.

"The world is a frightening place, and I’ve made it more so for many," Yates told jurors yesterday, before deliberations began. "Hundreds of people are hurting and grieving because of my actions."

His wife and their five children, his father, and relatives of Mercer and Ellis listened as Yates described his state of denial over what he had done. The denial lasted, he said, until about a month after his arrest, when he realized God had witnessed his crimes and that it was time for him to face up to them, too.

"Few men have ever felt the guilt I have, from all the horror I’ve brought into your lives," he said, telling the court: "I couldn’t rid myself of my sinful nature."

Yates told the victims’ families, "My prayer is you’ll turn to God" to fill the emptiness created in their lives.

Prosecutors dismissed Yates’ 14-minute statement as a self-pitying spiel in which he failed to accept responsibility for the 15 slayings.

In urging jurors to spare their client, defense lawyers stressed his military service and his potential for providing spiritual guidance to others in prison.

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