Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer, by Mark Prothero with Carlton Smith; Jossey-Bass, 2006
In the summer of 1982, a shadow fell on the great Pacific Northwest, one that extended from Seattle all the way south to Portland, Oregon. On July 15 of that year, the lifeless body of sixteen-year-old Wendy Coffield was pulled from the Green River in Kent, Washington, her jeans knotted tightly around her neck. I remember that day. I was on my way home from work when I heard that a body had been found in the Green River, close to the Riverbend Golf Course where I occasionally played.
Within a month, four more young women were found dead at or near the same location, and the phrase ‘Green River Killer’ became a permanent part of our lexicon. In the years that followed, more and more young women went missing, and more remains were discovered, some as far away as Portland. The shadow that fell in 1982 wasn’t lifted for more than nineteen years, until November 30, 2001, when Gary Leon Ridgway was arrested at the Kenworth truck plant in Renton where he worked. He was charged with four of the more than forty-five murders that had by that time been attributed to the Green River Killer.
During his initial questioning, Ridgway asked for a lawyer, and Mark Prothero, who worked for the Associated Counsel for the Accused, was summoned to the Regional Justice Center in Kent where Ridgway was being held. Prothero became a key member of Ridgway’s defense team, which included, among others, Tony Savage, a well-known Seattle defense attorney, and Todd Gruenhagen, another public defense lawyer. Defending Gary tells the story of this team’s efforts to defend Ridgway, from the day of his arrest until his sentencing two years later.
One of the most important achievements of the book is the insight it offers into our criminal justice system, including the obligations and responsibilities of the Public Defender’s office, and why that office is so important. Regarding these duties, Prothero writes:
Even from where I’m sitting, I can hear you saying, “Oh, yeah? What about guilty people who go free?” I admit that it happens, sometimes. But in my observation and experience it’s far more likely for an innocent person to be found guilty than for a guilty person to be found innocent. That’s just the way the system works, even with all the rights we theoretically afford the accused. And I suppose I would also add this: it’s really far more endurable to our society for one guilty person to go free than it is for our government to limit all of our rights to make certain of catching all of the guilty. That’s the path to dictatorship.
And in the broadest sense, what we do as criminal defense lawyers is act as quality control for the criminal justice system: to make sure it operates under the rules we’d all agreed upon, more than two hundred years ago in our Constitution. In a significant way, our most important client is the Constitution itself.” (p. 46)
Another aspect of American justice addressed in this book, one that was at the heart of the Green River proceedings, is the plea bargaining that regularly takes place between the prosecution and the defense. When new evidence came to light that allowed the prosecution to add three additional murder charges to the original four, the Ridgway defense team was forced to come to terms with their client’s guilt. They realized that if this case went to trial, his conviction was a near certainty. At that point, their focus changed from trying to establish Ridgway’s innocence, to doing whatever they could to keep him alive. Toward that end, they approached Norm Maleng, the King County Prosecutor, with an offer to settle, which was articulated by Tony Savage:
“I’ll get to the point,” Tony said… “We’re here to see if you will consider guilty pleas and resolution to fifty or so cases in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. It would include the vast majority of the cases on the Green River list and maybe ten others.” (p. 268)
After much consideration, Maleng accepted the defense’s proposal, a decision he later defended at a media briefing that took place after Ridgway’s formal guilty plea was entered.
“My immediate reaction [to the defense’s offer] was ‘No!’” he said. “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,” Maleng continued… “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 knew that, in the end, this was my decision to make and 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 twenty years investigating. It could begin the healing for our entire community. The justice we could achieve was to uncover the Truth.”
Maleng explained, “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…”
Maleng went on. “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…” (pp. 502-504)
Defending Gary provides a compelling argument against capital punishment, much of which is due to Prothero’s vivid account of what Gary said and did during the two years he worked with him. Through those descriptions, Prothero achieves a remarkable transformation: he humanizes Gary. Examples of this abound throughout the book, but perhaps none is more revealing of Gary’s humanity than his statement to the court at his sentencing hearing, a statement Gary wrote and recited himself:
“I’m sorry for killing all those young ladies,” he read. “I’ve tried hard to remember as much as I could, to help the detectives find and recover the ladies. I’m sorry for the scare I put into the community. I want to thank the police, prosecutors, my attorneys, and all others that had the patience to work with me and help me remember all the terrible things I did, and to be able to talk about them. I know how horrible my acts were. I have tried for a long time to get these things out of my mind. I have tried for a long time to keep from killing any more ladies. I’m sorry that I’ve put my wife, my son, my brother, and my family through this hell. I hope they can find a way to forgive me. I am very sorry for the ladies that were not found. May they rest in peace. They need a better place than what I gave them. I’m sorry for killing these young ladies. They had their whole life ahead of them. I’m sorry I caused so much pain for so many families.” (p. 516)
Defending Gary is not the only book about the Green River case, but it is hands-down the best one, and does the most thoughtful job of exploring the ‘why’ question. While the last word on what drove Gary Ridgway to commit serial murder may never be written, Defending Gary offers many illuminating theories. When Tony Savage was asked, “Do you have any insight into what drove Mr. Ridgway to do what he did?” he answered quite simply: “Rage… He was – and is – a very, very angry person. And the source of that – there are all kinds of theories… I just don’t know, but he was consumed with rage.” (p. 501)
Mark Prothero answers that question this way: “Why did he do it? In twenty-five words or less: Killing prostitutes gave him power and control over women and others in authority – power and control he wanted but lacked in his own existence.” (p. 526)
A personal note: In 2010, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation about the Green River case given by Mark Prothero to a sociology class at Kentridge High School in Kent. Afterwards, Mark and I spoke for a few minutes, and he signed my copy of his book. I was shocked and saddened last month to learn of Mark’s death from cancer at the age of 57. With his passing, three key figures in the Ridgway drama have now left us: Norm Maleng died in 2007, and Tony Savage in 2012.
For his part, Gary Ridgway, now 65, is incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he is serving 49 consecutive life sentences without any possibility of parole.