State v. Yates

Decision Date27 September 2007
Docket NumberNo. 73155-1.,73155-1.
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Robert Lee YATES, Jr., Appellant.

Thomas Kummerow, Gregory Link, Nancy Collins, Washington Appellate Project, Seattle, WA, for Appellant.

Kathleen Proctor, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Tacoma, WA, for Respondent.


¶ 1 At trial in 2002, Robert Lee Yates Jr. was convicted of the 1997 aggravated first degree murder of Melinda L. Mercer and the 1998 aggravated first degree murder of Connie L. Ellis. At the special sentencing hearing, the jury found insufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant leniency. Yates was sentenced to death. He appeals his convictions and sentence. Finding no reversible error in the guilt or penalty phases, we affirm the judgment and sentence of the trial court.


¶ 2 The Pierce County Murders. Melinda Mercer turned to prostitution in November 1997 to support her heroin addiction. She was last seen alive on the night of December 6, 1997, leaving a Seattle tavern. According to the testimony of a friend, Mercer left the tavern to go to Aurora Avenue to make money for a heroin buy. On the following morning, Mercer's nude body was found in some blackberry bushes in a vacant lot in Tacoma, a lot used as a dump site for garbage. Some of her clothing had been thrown on top of her, but other items were never recovered. An autopsy revealed that she had been shot three times in the back left side of the head. Only one of the three bullets penetrated her brain, but it did so without affecting the areas that control consciousness and motor response. Found nearby was a .25 caliber shell casing. Bloodstains on her blouse indicated that she had been clothed and upright when shot in the head. After shooting her, the killer encased her head in four plastic grocery bags. The two outer bags contained very little blood, but blood had pooled inside the two inner bags. Mercer's nostrils and upper lip were visible through small tears in the two inner bags, which had been partially drawn into Mercer's mouth; the holes suggested that Mercer was alive when the bags were tied over her head and that she had used her teeth to create the holes. Although Mercer could have died solely from the gunshot wounds, the oxygen deprivation would have hastened her death.

¶ 3 Connie Ellis likewise worked as a prostitute to support a heroin addiction. Ellis had reentered a methadone treatment program on September 8, 1998, and she was last seen alive on September 17, 1998, when she received a dose of methadone at the clinic (a urinalysis taken at that time revealed that she was again using heroin). On October 13, 1998, approximately 11 months after the discovery of Mercer's body, a search and rescue dog that was engaged in an unrelated search in Pierce County discovered Ellis's decomposed body 10 feet down an embankment in a greenbelt used as a dump site. The degree of decomposition suggested that Ellis had been killed a month prior, not long after her September 17 visit to the methadone clinic. Ellis's body was clothed in jeans, a blouse and socks, but lacked any undergarments. Ellis died of a single gunshot wound to the left side of her head. The wound was consistent with a .25 caliber bullet. Her head was encased in three plastic grocery bags.

¶ 4 The Spokane County Murders. On the day Ellis's body was discovered, the Spokane County Sheriff's Department learned of the Pierce County case. In a phone call to one of the Tacoma detectives investigating the Ellis murder, a Spokane detective asked, "`Will you just tell me one thing? Does she have plastic bags on her head?'" 52 Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) at 4855. Detectives from Tacoma and Spokane shared information gathered on the 2 Pierce County murders and 10 unsolved murders committed in Spokane County between 1996 and 1998. As did Mercer and Ellis, the 10 Spokane victims had a history of drug abuse and worked in prostitution (all were last seen in the East Sprague Street corridor in Spokane, an area known for prostitution).2 Again like Mercer and Ellis, the Spokane victims had been shot in the head with a small caliber handgun.3 Moreover, just as Mercer's and Ellis's heads had been encased in plastic bags, two or three plastic bags had been tied over the heads of five of the Spokane victims.4 Similarly, plastic bags were found in the grave with one victim and near the body of another,5 and a towel was found on or near the first two victims.

¶ 5 On April 18, 2000, a year and a half after the discovery of Ellis's body, the Spokane police arrested Yates. The police first contacted him in July 1998, after the body of Michelyn Derning was discovered on July 7, 1998, a block north of Pantrol, a manufacturing company where Yates had worked since moving to Spokane in April 1996 after being released from the army. Yates gave the officer his name, date of birth, and address. A second contact occurred on November 9, 1998, when a police officer saw Yates pick up Jennifer Robinson in the East Sprague Street area. Yates told Robinson to say that he was one of her father's friends, and Robinson complied. When asked for identification, Yates gave the officer his driver's license. The officer ultimately let them move on, and Yates dropped Robinson off a few blocks away. Following the Pantrol interview and the Robinson incident, the police learned that Yates had once owned a white Corvette, a type of car that witnesses had reported seeing in relation to the disappearance of two of the earliest victims, Jennifer Joseph and Heather Hernandez. Late in 1999, a Spokane detective interviewed Yates, who claimed he never patronized Spokane prostitutes and owned no handguns. He admitted that he had previously owned a white Corvette and had sold it to a friend, Rita Jones. The police located Yates's white Corvette in January 2000 and discovered under the front passenger seat the white mother-of-pearl button missing from Joseph's blouse. Bloodstains found in the Corvette matched Joseph's deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

¶ 6 Following Yates's arrest, the police developed additional evidence. On the day after the arrest, Christine Smith, a former prostitute, contacted the police to identify Yates as the person who had picked her up in Spokane in August 1998 and shot and robbed her in the back of his van. In May 2000, officers searched Yates's black Ford van, in the back of which Yates had installed a homemade wooden platform bed covered with carpet. The carpet, padding, and underlying wood tested positive for blood (later identified as that of Ellis and Murfin),6 and three bullet holes were found, as well as a spent bullet and bullet debris (containing Smith's DNA). From Yates's house, the police took records indicating that he had owned at least three guns, one .22 caliber and two .25 caliber handguns. Forensic analysis later showed that Mercer was killed with the same .25 caliber handgun used in the murders of Spokane victims Johnson, Oster, Wason, and Maybin and that Ellis was killed with a different .25 caliber gun, the same one used to murder Murfin and wound Smith. Other evidence taken from Yates's house established that, at the time Mercer and Ellis were last seen alive, Yates had been in the Tacoma area, fulfilling National Guard duties at nearby Fort Lewis. From Yates's closet, the police took a jacket identified as the one Smith had been wearing on the night Yates assaulted and robbed her, and from Yates's laundry room, they took a canvas coat that bore a stain later identified by DNA analysis as Mercer's blood. Using Yates's hand-drawn map, police excavated an area on the east side of Yates's house, beneath his bedroom window, and recovered Murfin's body. The semen collected by oral, vaginal, and/or anal swabs from Mercer and six Spokane victims (Scott, Johnson, Wason, Oster, Maybin, and Derning) was linked by DNA analysis to Yates, as were hairs found on Mercer and Maybin.

¶ 7 Yates was ultimately charged in Spokane County Superior Court with 10 counts of first degree murder and 1 count of attempted first degree murder. On October 13, 2000, in exchange for the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney's agreement not to seek the death penalty, Yates pleaded guilty to the Spokane County crimes, as well as to two counts of first degree murder in Walla Walla County and one in Skagit County. His statement on plea of guilty did no more than acknowledge that he had committed with premeditated intent the murders listed in the amended information, which had provided nothing more than the names and dates of the murders. Yates was sentenced to 408 years in prison.

¶ 8 Prosecution of the Pierce County Murders. On July 17, 2000, the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney filed an information charging Yates with the aggravated first degree murders of Mercer and Ellis. On each count, the State alleged three aggravating factors and a firearm enhancement. At the time the information was filed, the State also provided Yates with notice of its consideration of a special sentencing proceeding, inviting Yates to submit mitigation material to the prosecuting attorney. At Yates's arraignment on October 31, 2000, he entered a plea of "not guilty," and the court read the State's notice of consideration of a special sentencing proceeding. The court entered an order extending until January 15, 2001, the State's deadline for filing its notice to seek the death penalty, a notice that the State timely filed on January 12, 2001.

¶ 9 Opening statements were delivered on August 12, 2002, and the State rested its case-in-chief on September 11, 2002. The defense rested the following day. The jury found Yates guilty on both counts of first degree murder and likewise determined that, with respect to each count, the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of all three aggravating...

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