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Bargaining With Death: Using the Death Penalty as a Law Enforcement Tool

Washington Gov. Jay Inlsee says he will not allow the death penalty to be carried out while he is in office, but those who caught and prosecuted "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway say the ability to use capital punishment as leverage is an important tool in law enforcement.

When "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway, who had terrorized the Pacific Northwest for almost 20 years, was sentenced to life without parole in 2003, many in the community were ready to push the grisly case to the back of their minds. But for victims’ families and the police and prosecutors who spent years on the case, forgetting was not an option.  When Gov. Jay Inslee, in February of 2014, announced a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington, some of those most closely involved in the Ridgway case argued to reverse the moratorium, bringing back the details of the state’s most haunting homicide investigation.

“That was an intense period of time,” says former Green River Task Force detective, Sheriff and now Congressman Dave Reichert. “Memories still … are there.” 

Reichert was elected King County Sheriff in 1998 and immediately re-opened the Green River case, eventually zeroing in on Ridgway in 2001 after technicians used DNA and microscopic paint flecks from some of the first body sites to make a positive match. 

Then-prosecutor Norm Maleng and his chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, were convinced Ridgway murdered over 50 young women and girls in the 1980s and 1990s, but they could only make seven cases stick. Proving anything beyond those would be impossible. 

They had always planned to ask for the death penalty, but not long after turning over evidence to the defense, Ridgway’s attorneys came knocking.  Knowing their client was likely to be convicted on the seven murders and would face the death penalty, they proposed a plea deal that would be hotly debated for months: full confessions in all the killings Ridgway could remember in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. 

The decision rested with Maleng, whose first response was “Hell, no!”  But he then took some time to think it through.

After three weeks, Maleng agreed. Ridgway was moved to a secret bunker site near Boeing Field for interrogation.  

After agreeing to the plea deal that saved him from the death penalty, Gary Ridgway was held and interrogated in a secret location near this site on East Marginal Way adjacent to Boeing Field.

“We expected it to take a couple of weeks.  It ended up taking more like six months,” recalls Satterberg.  As seen in revealing video recordings from the sessions, detectives push Ridgway to stop lying. After nonproductive sessions, they threaten to abandon the deal and restart the death penalty proceedings.  “Do you care whether you live or die?” Ridgway is asked.  He replies, haltingly, “Uh … yeah, I’d rather live.”

Following hundreds of hours of questioning and field trips to the sites where he remembered taking victims, Ridgway gave enough information to be charged with 48 murders, far from the 60–65 he had first mentioned but enough to give 41 other families some answers as to how and where their daughters perished. One additional charge was added later.

A bridge off the road at Exit 38 off Interstate 90, one of the sites where Ridgway disposed of the bodies of the women and girls he killed.

“The plea deal was the avenue to the truth. And in the end, the search for truth is why we have a criminal justice system,” stated Maleng, announcing the plea deal.

Many of the families were not persuaded. At the plea and sentencing hearings of late 2003, mothers, fathers, siblings and children of victims let loose their anger at the deal and the killer.

“I think we’ve been sold by the prosecutor for denying us the justice we could expect,” lamented Connie Dexter, mother of victim Constance Naon. 

The plea deal struck with Ridgway was not quite the long-sought closure for every loved one, nor was it the final resolution that would allow all of the detectives and prosecutors to rest easy, but Dave Reichert maintains it was as close to the full truth as was possible to reach.

On February 18th, 2011, the family of Rebecca Marrero addresses the Court at Ridgway’s sentencing at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.  The 20-year-old Marrero was the 49th slaying attributed to Gary Ridgway, seated at right.

Now, 13 years later, Reichert claims that truth would never have had a chance to come to light if the current death penalty moratorium had been in effect. 

“Our options were: take seven cases to trial and either he gets the death penalty and we wait through years and years of appeals; or a juror decides he or she can’t put anyone to death and he gets life; or he is somehow acquitted for one or more of the seven. In either of those scenarios, Ridgway is sitting in his cell just as he is today, only we don’t have any other answers," Reichert says. "Bottom line is Gary Ridgway is a coward, and the only reason we solved as many cases as we did is that he wanted to live. The detectives need that tool to say, ‘Tell us the whole story and you won’t be put to death.’”

UPDATE: Serial killer Gary Ridgway once again made news when it was discovered that he had been abruptly transferred from his isolated cell at the Washington State Penitentiary to the Federal ADX Supermax prison in Colorado. After complaints by Gov. Jay Inslee and Congressman Dave Reichert (R-WA) and others, Ridgway was returned to Washington in September 2015 to be accessible for further questioning and investigations.

Suggested reading: 'The Worst of the Worst: A defense attorney who excelled at saving the lives of notorious killers. Then she took the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.'



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Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

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