Governor grants reprieve in Bellingham child-killer’s death sentence

A recent mugshot of Clark Elmore, a death row inmate for 21 years.
A recent mugshot of Clark Elmore, a death row inmate for 21 years. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Gov. Jay Inslee granted a reprieve Thursday to a Bellingham man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Kristy Lynn Ohnstad.

Clark Richard Elmore killed his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, Kristy, in a rust-colored van south of Lake Samish in April 1995. He raped her, choked her until she passed out, drove a metal skewer through her skull, beat her with a sledgehammer, and dumped her body in the woods off Nulle Road.

Kristy wasn’t found for days. Elmore led his own search party. He told local media the police weren’t trying hard enough. Once the body was found, he fled to SeaTac in his van, caught a bus, and headed to his home state of Oregon. Then he reconsidered. He caught a flight back to Bellingham, and turned himself in.

Elmore pleaded guilty as charged to aggravated first-degree murder, knowing the prosecutor would seek a death sentence. At the penalty phase, a Whatcom County jury found no good cause to show leniency. He was sentenced to death May 3, 1996.

Over the past two decades, Elmore has appealed, in hope of having his sentence overturned. He has never disputed his guilt. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case, and weeks ago the U.S. 9th Circuit Court denied a rehearing. An execution date was set for Jan. 19.

Inslee formally granted a reprieve Thursday. Two years earlier he had announced a moratorium on executions in Washington state. Since then Elmore is the first of Washington’s death row inmates to exhaust all of his appeals.

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“Governor Inslee has been very consistent that his moratorium on the death penalty cases in Washington isn’t about individual cases,” reads a statement released Thursday by the Governor’s Office. “As he stated when he announced the moratorium in 2014, the action is based on the governor’s belief that the use of capital punishment across the state is inconsistent and unequally applied – sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”

Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran met with Inslee last week to ask the governor to reconsider the ban, and to make an exception in Elmore’s case. McEachran conceded it was a long shot, and he doubted he changed the governor’s mind. Kristy’s family spoke with Inslee, too, and “expressed a preference to see Elmore serve life in prison,” according to the Governor’s Office.

McEachran on Thursday said he believes the governor must find good cause in each case to use his power of reprieve, rather than as a blanket policy. Inslee’s reasons for the reprieve – a “lack of clear deterrent value, high frequency of sentence reversal on appeal, and rising cost” – do not constitute good cause, in McEachran’s view.

“I am disappointed,” McEachran said in a brief written statement, “that after 21 years of appeals, in which the sentence of death has been upheld by the highest courts in the state and the United States, the governor has derailed the sentence.”

Elmore remains at the state prison in Walla Walla, along with Washington’s eight other death row inmates.

A future governor can nix the reprieve and allow the execution to go forward. Voters re-elected Inslee in November.

Inslee’s statement concludes: “The governor urges the state Legislature to end the death penalty once and for all.”

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb