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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

No Justice for Arlene Roberts

     On October 28, 1978, Arlene Roberts' neighbors at the Lakeshore Manor Mobile Home Park in Renton, Washington near Seattle, checked in on the 80-year-old after she hadn't been seen for several days. They were shocked by what they saw upon entering her ransacked trailer. Someone had brutally murdered this woman.

     King County Sheriff's deputies found the victim half-naked and gagged with her hands and feet bound by one of her nylon stockings. The killer had strangled Roberts to death with a ligature fashioned from the victim's hair net.

     Although a crime scene investigator gathered physical evidence from the scene, including several latent fingerprints that did not belong to the victim, no suspects were developed, and the investigation slowed to a crawl then died on the vine.

     Early in 2011, 33 years after this sadistic murder, King County cold case investigators re-opened the Roberts homicide case. When detectives entered three of the crime scene latents into the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) computer--including a print that had been developed off a bank statement, and a print off a traveler's check--the computer search produced three "hits" or matches. All of the submitted fingerprints belonged to Ronald Wayne MacDonald, a then 17-year-old burglar who lived seven blocks from the murder scene.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that shortly after Arlene Roberts' murder, MacDonald moved to Florida where he was arrested several times for burglary for which he served numerous stretches in prison. In the 1990's, while living around the Reno, Nevada area, police had arrested him on burglary charges in 1992 and 2001.

     In June 2011, King County investigators traveled to Reno to interrogate the Roberts murder case suspect. When the detectives confronted MacDonald with the crime scene fingerprint evidence, he confessed to strangling the elderly woman to death in 1978. Two months later, the authorities in Nevada took MacDonald into custody on the charge of first-degree murder. In September 2011, he was back in King County, Washington awaiting his trial under a $2 million bond.

     At the opening of the MacDonald murder trial in June 2012, the defendant and the prosecutor entered into a so-called Alford plea agreement. (An Alford plea allows a defendant to agree to a sentencing deal without admitting guilt.) Pursuant to this plea, MacDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense that carried a maximum sentence of five years. Pursuant to the deal, MacDonald, 51, would only serve 16 months in prison. With credit given for time served, he would, under the plea agreement, be immediately released from custody.

    On August 8, 2012, at the sentencing hearing, King County Detective Scott Tompkins took the stand on behalf of the victim who had no family or friends to represent her at the proceeding.Tompkins urged the judge to ignore the plea bargained deal and impose the maximum manslaughter sentence of five years. According to the detective, the victim had died a horrific death, noting that it had taken the medical examiner eighteen paragraphs just to describe all of her injuries.

     The judge obliged the detective's request, and imposed the five year sentence.

    MacDonald's attorneys appealed the judge's sentence to the state supreme court, arguing that the detective, as part of the prosecution team, had no standing to testify at the sentence hearing on behalf of the victim.

     On April 9, 2015, in a 6-3 decision, the state supreme court justices ruled that the detective's sentence hearing testimony was procedurally inappropriate. This meant that MacDonald, scheduled for release in September 2016, was to be immediately set free.

     Prosecutors in the case, because of procedural issues associated with MacDonald's confession back in 2011, believed the best deal they could make involved the 16-month sentence. Thanks to Detective Tompkins, MacDonald ended up serving three years and eight months behind bars. Even so, this sadistic, serial offender got off light. For Arlene Roberts, there was no justice. 

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