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Bellingham teen-killer’s death sentence commuted due to state Supreme Court ruling

Washington Supreme Court tosses out state’s death penalty

The Washington State Supreme Court said Thursday that the death penalty is unconstitutional, because it is “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The ruling was part of a 1996 Tacoma case, in which the murderer was sentenced to death.
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The Washington State Supreme Court said Thursday that the death penalty is unconstitutional, because it is “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The ruling was part of a 1996 Tacoma case, in which the murderer was sentenced to death.

A Whatcom County man sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of a teenage girl will have his sentence converted to life in prison due to a Washington state Supreme Court unanimous ruling that says the death penalty, as applied, violates the state Constitution.

Five of the justices argued in the Thursday opinion the “death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” while the other four said additional state principles applied, the Associated Press reported.

All justices agreed that the eight people currently on death row, which includes Clark Richard Elmore of Whatcom County, should have their sentences converted to life in prison.

In late December 2016, Gov. Jay Inslee granted his first reprieve for a death-row inmate to Elmore. The Whatcom man was sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, Kristy Lynn Ohnstad, in a van south of Lake Samish in April 1995. Elmore raped Ohnstad, choked her, drove a metal skewer through her skull, beat her with a sledgehammer and dumped her body in the woods off Nulle Road, according to previous reports in The Bellingham Herald.

Elmore led his own search party and told local media the police weren’t trying hard enough to find Ohnstad. Elmore initially fled to Oregon after Ohnstad’s body was found, but later returned to Bellingham and turned himself in, The Herald reported.

Elmore pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder and was sentenced to death May 3, 1996. Since that time, Elmore appealed in the hopes of having his sentence overturned. In October 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case and several weeks later the U.S. 9th Circuit denied a rehearing.

Elmore illustration
Stories from The Bellingham Herald’s coverage of Clark Richard Elmore’s case. Staff The Bellingham Herald

Elmore’s execution was then scheduled for Jan. 19, 2017. Elmore, who was one of nine inmates on death row at the time in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, was the first to exhaust all of his appeals.

In light of the new state Supreme Court ruling, Elmore’s sentence will be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as Inslee’s order of reprieve only stayed his execution date at the time. He remains on death row in Walla Walla.

Political positions on the death penalty have evolved since 1988, when Michael S. Dukakis's presidential campaign was damaged because of his opposition to it.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt
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