Death Penalty Not a Given in Serial Killings

Some believe that Washington State serial killer Robert Yates Jr. and reputed “Dr. Death” Michael Swango got off easy.

Yates admitted to murdering 13 women. He is accused of killing two more, and is being looked at in connection with the deaths of 11 other women who shared characteristics with his known victims. Swango, who had already been sentenced to life in New York for poisoning three patients, admitted to poisoning an injured Ohio gymnast in 1984. He is also linked to numerous other deaths in a book that accuses him of 35 killings.

Neither of these serial killers will face the death penalty under plea agreements formally reached this week.

That has some victims’ advocates wondering why, given the nature of the crimes, prosecutors were willing to spare Yates and Swango. And why the death penalty isn’t always used in multiple-murder cases.

“I don’t know why prosecutors [in the Yates case] wouldn’t pursue the death penalty,” said Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victim rights group, Justice For All. “You would think that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty, it would be this guy. … If the evidence is there and the determining factor [in death penalty cases] really is guilt, heinousness of the crime, then this man should go to trial and let a jury make that decision at sentencing. Let a jury get the facts and make the decision on those facts instead of making that decision for them.”

Not Just a Life or Death Question But prosecutors in both cases say their decisions were not that simple, and seldom are in such circumstances.

In Swango’s case, prosecutors said he may never have been charged in the first place if they had not cut a deal. During negotiations with New York prosecutors, Swango agreed to admit to three deaths at a veteran’s hospital and confess to killing Cynthia Ann McGee at Ohio State University’s hospital if federal and Ohio officials agreed not to pursue the death penalty.

Ohio prosecutor Edward Morgan said they needed Swango’s confession to even charge him with aggravated murder, and said that under Ohio law, prosecutors can only pursue the death penalty if they can prove the suspect is involved in two or more slayings. But in Swango’s case, Morgan said they only had evidence for one death, and the evidence was circumstantial at best.

“We couldn’t have pursued the death penalty because we only had evidence for one body,” Morgan said. “And we felt we didn’t have the evidence to charge him. With his confession, we had an in-court statement and we were able to then charge him.”

After Swango’s sentencing for the New York deaths, Ohio prosecutors simultaneously charged him with McGee’s murder and announced he had agreed to plead guilty. A formal plea and sentencing of life with parole after 20 years — the maximum penalty for aggravated murder at the time of the crime in 1984 — was fixed. However, he must still serve his sentence of life without parole for the New York slayings, making the Ohio sentence moot.

Morgan said McGee’s family was happy and relieved not to have to relive their daughter’s death at a trial.

“We contacted them before we made the agreement,” Morgan said. “They were happy that they didn’t have to go through the process of experiencing what they went through again. They just wanted to go on with their lives and were happy to get some closure to this.”

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