TACOMA, Wash. — A Pierce County jury on Thursday convicted confessed serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. of aggravated first-degree murder in the killings of two prostitutes — the only crime in Washington state that carries the death penalty.
After less than two days of deliberations, the jury found Yates guilty of all three possible aggravating factors on both counts: that he robbed his victims, that he killed them to conceal another crime and that the killings were part of a common scheme.
Yates, 50, and a father of five, confessed to 13 murders in Spokane County two years ago and is serving 408 years in prison under a plea deal with prosecutors there. Pierce County prosecutors refused to go along with that deal.
Yates also admitted the two Pierce County slayings, and his trial centered on whether the string of killings met the legal definition of aggravated murder, and thus could be punishable by death.
His jury will decide whether he receives the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The penalty hearing begins Tuesday.
"We look forward to the next phase," said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jerry Costello. "We want to get the full measure of justice for these victims."
Defense attorney Roger Hunko said the verdict came as no shock. The defense's message during the penalty phase, he said, would be "that one should never kill when one doesn't have to. If you have a choice between life and death you should choose life. That's what our society says."
Richard Fasy, a public defender who represented Yates in Spokane, said: "I'm very disappointed. I'm chagrined, but I can only hope that a jury will decide to forgo the death penalty. I have every confidence in his present attorneys."
Hunko and fellow defense attorney Mary Kay High opened their case conceding their client shot Melinda Mercer, 24, in 1997 and Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, in 1998, but argued he should only be convicted of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors countered that the murders fit the pattern of Yates' 10 Spokane-area slayings between 1996 and 1998, thus constituting a common scheme of crime.
"I'm very happy," Mercer's sister, Holly Mercer said. "I just wanted him to be held accountable for what he did."
Caryl Bushell, Mercer's mother, said she was relieved by the guilty verdict. "If he doesn't get the death penalty, who should get it?" she asked.
Shirley Hess of Spokane, one of Yates' sisters, said the verdict did not surprise her. "No matter what, we will always be there for him and we will always love him," she said.
Police linked Yates to the string of murders in 2000, when they traced carpet fibers in a white Corvette he once owned to Jennifer Joseph, 16, whose body was found in rural Spokane County 10 days after a friend saw her getting into the car.
The state called 90 witnesses during the five-week trial, including detectives from the Spokane Serial Homicide Task Force that arrested Yates, an FBI profiler and friends of the victims.
Defense attorneys presented their case in less than two days last week, calling 10 witnesses. Yates did not testify.
Four defense witnesses were prostitutes who described Yates as a "good date" who paid up front, did not request kinky sex and wore a condom.
The 12 women Yates has killed since 1996 all were involved in prostitution. All were shot in the head.
In all but one case, he used a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Most of the bodies were dumped in out-of-the-way areas. The exception was Melody Murfin, murdered in 1998 and buried in the Yates' yard in Spokane, just outside the master bedroom.
In addition to those 12 women, Yates admitted killing a young man and woman — Patrick Oliver, 21, and Susan Savage, 22 — near Walla Walla in 1975, when he was a guard at the Washington State Penitentiary; and a Seattle woman, Stacy Elizabeth Hawn, 23, in Skagit County in 1988.
Yates grew up on Whidbey Island. He served in the Army until shortly before he and his family moved to Spokane six years ago.
As a helicopter pilot and instructor for the Washington Army National Guard, he was in the Tacoma area frequently for work at nearby Fort Lewis.