Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 18 Number 4
Chair’s Report to Members
Justice for All Victims of Green River Killer
Norman K. Maleng
Norman K. Maleng is the chair of the Criminal Justice Section and the King County prosecuting attorney in Seattle, Washington.
For more than 20 years the “Green River killer” stalked the area south of Seattle in King County, Washington. The killer preyed on young women and teenage girls, most of whom were engaged in prostitution. The killer got his name because the initial victims were found placed in the Green River. Subsequent victims were found in densely wooded areas of King County, and down steep embankments off of rural roads.
In December 2001, my office charged Gary Ridgway with four counts of aggravated murder for the killings of the victims found in and near the Green River. DNA technology had caught up to the killer. But scores of cases remained unsolved and unsolvable. I had to make a decision—the most difficult of my professional career—to set aside the death penalty in exchange for Ridgway’s cooperation in solving two decades of homicide cases.
It was, and is, a controversial decision. Below is the pubic statement I released at the time I made my decision. I want to share it with the readers of Criminal Justice magazine because this case illustrates the difficult job we all have in defining the elusive concept of “justice.”
—Norman K. Maleng
Statement on Ridgway Plea
Our Green River nightmare is over. We have seen the face of justice: it brings truth for our community and for the families of the victims. Now the healing can begin.
This morning Gary Ridgway pled guilty to 48 counts of aggravated murder. In return for this plea, and the information necessary to solve and charge the crimes, we agreed not to seek the death penalty. This is a historic day for King County, one that will allow us to close this terrible chapter in our history. The Green River nightmare is over.
More than 20 years have passed since investigators from the King County Sheriff’s Office began their search for the Green River killer. From 1982 through 1984, members of the task force were called upon dozens of times to respond to scenes where victims were discovered throughout King County. The investigators were extremely thorough and careful not to overlook any clue that might sooner or later reveal the identity of the killer. Little did they know that the evidence recovered from the very first crime scene would be instrumental in capturing the killer nearly 20 years later.
The meticulous police work of 1982 paid off in 2001 when modern forensic science finally caught up to Gary Ridgway. DNA comparisons linked him to three of the victims found in and near the Green River, plus a fourth victim found near Maple Valley. Ridgway was arrested and charged with these four crimes in December 2001.
The Green River Task Force was quickly reestablished with the best detectives and the best deputy prosecutors in King County to continue their investigations, this time with Ridgway as the prime suspect. After more than a year of investigation, another major breakthrough came. Microscopic paint dust found on the clothing and crime scenes of more victims was positively compared to a certain type of paint used only at Ridgway’s job site where he was a truck painter. This new forensic evidence supported charging three more counts, for a total of seven. As exciting as this development was, we realized that we had exhausted our leads in the remaining cases. There were no more dramatic forensic science breakthroughs left. It became clear that despite the scores of cases still under investigation, we would be left with only seven that could be charged.
About this same time, in late April of this year, Ridgway’s attorneys came to meet with me. They told me that Ridgway was willing to cooperate with the Green River Task Force. They said that he would accept responsibility for most of the homicides on the list and provide information to the Green River Task Force to permit them to resolve cases and locate the missing remains of victims. Ridgway’s cooperation was conditioned upon our willingness to forgo the death penalty.
My immediate reaction was “no.” The question leaped out to me just as it does to you: How could you set aside the death penalty in a case like this? Here we have a man presumed to be a prolific serial killer, a man who preyed on vulnerable young women. I thought, as many of you might, if any case screams out for consideration of the death penalty, it is this one. I realized, however, that this proposal had huge implications for families of victims, for the men and women of the task force, for the sheriff, and for the entire community. It deserved thoughtful consideration.
I have long said that the mission of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is not just to win cases, but to seek justice. One of the principles that we have followed in seeking justice is that we do not plea bargain with the death penalty. It is a principle I specifically mentioned with regard to this case at the time the case was filed. The reason for that policy is that it is not fair to defendants to use the death penalty as leverage for a plea to aggravated murder. The death penalty is too powerful a consequence to be used as a plea bargaining tool.
But this case squarely presented another principle that is a foundation of our justice system—to seek and know the truth. I knew that there were many people waiting for the truth in this case. I spent three weeks considering the defense proposal. I listened to members of the Green River Task Force, and to Sheriff Dave Reichert. I listened to my own team of senior deputy prosecutors and staff. I knew that, in the end, this was my decision to make and mine to defend.
I was searching for justice — what should be the legacy of this case? During this search I was reminded of the Biblical phrase from First Corinthians, Chapter 13: “ For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.” I finally saw a new face of justice. Before, I could only see the face of Gary Ridgway; but I began to see other faces — the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children of the victims. I saw that the justice we could achieve could bring home the remains of loved ones for proper burial. It could solve unsolvable cases the task force had spent 20 years investigating. It could begin the healing for our entire community. The justice we could achieve was to uncover the truth.
We could have gone forward with seven counts, but that is all we could have ever hoped to solve. At the end of that trial, whatever the outcome, there would have been lingering doubts about the rest of these crimes. This agreement was the avenue to the truth. And in the end, the search for the truth is still why we have a criminal justice system.
Now, I know that defense attorneys will argue in future capital punishment cases that the resolution of this case should prevent the application of the law to their clients. But the law requires an individual consideration in each case. Each elected prosecutor has the responsibility to consider the aggravating and mitigating facts unique to each case. This case cannot be compared to any other set of facts. When courts review a death penalty case and evaluate the prosecutor’s decision, they are looking to see a principled consideration of all of the factors and principled application of the statute. The reasons supporting the resolution of this case are principled; they are based in justice, not in cost or convenience. This resolution promotes justice. It will meet any so-called “proportionality review” arguments made to our courts.
Gary Ridgway does not deserve our mercy. He does not deserve to live. The mercy provided by today’s resolution is directed not at Ridgway, but toward the families who have suffered so much, and to the larger community. I have met with many of the families of the victims to share this news. Our meetings were very touching; their grief is still fresh, even 20 years later. They are people who have suffered life’s most terrible hurt, the loss of a child. They are deserving of answers; they are deserving of truth; they are deserving of mercy.
There are 48 families of 48 victims and none deserved their fates. We see photos of these young women, most taken during happier times in their short lives. They were young women, with troubles to be sure, but they each had their hopes and aspirations. They had moms and dads, sisters and brothers, and some had children. These victims were God’s children, our children. They deserve our sympathy, our tears, and our mercy.
When I see the face of justice in this case, it is those young women that I see. They deserve to have truth of their fates known to the world. When I see the face of justice in this case, I will see each family impacted by these crimes. They deserve to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.
And the families, who until recently have endured decades not knowing the whereabouts of their daughters, they deserved to be able to have a proper burial. They all deserve our deepest sympathy.
Finally, the face of justice reflects our whole community. We have all suffered this terrible trauma known as the Green River murders. We deserve to know the truth and to move on.
Justice and mercy: for the victims, the families, and the community. That is why we entered into this agreement.