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Prosecutor at ease with sparing killer

SEATTLE -- Like any politician who breaks a promise, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng expected a heavy dose of criticism for letting the Green River Killer escape death row. By and large, it hasn't come.

"When I made the decision, I felt at peace with it," Maleng said. "I did then, and I do today."

If that means that Maleng, a tough-on-crime Republican who has sought the death penalty 20 times in the 25 years he has been in office, is remembered for the execution he didn't seek, so be it, he said.

When Green River Killer suspect Gary Ridgway was charged in 2001, Maleng vowed that his office would not bargain away the death penalty. But after careful consideration, he allowed Ridgway to avoid lethal injection by confessing to dozens of unsolved murder cases.

On Nov. 5, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 murders for a two-decade rampage targeting runaways and prostitutes. He became the deadliest convicted serial killer in US history.

At the time Maleng agreed to the plea bargain, Ridgway was charged with only seven slayings, and investigators had all but given up hope of linking him to the others. Maleng said he made the deal to bring answers, and peace of mind, to the victims' families and to the community. Ridgway has since led authorities to the bodies of four women.

In the past two weeks, Maleng's office has received about 120 letters and e-mails concerning the decision. Most have been supportive, said his spokesman, Dan Donohoe. Both of Seattle's daily newspapers, including the pro-death-penalty Seattle Times, wrote editorials praising him.

The sheriff, Ridgway's lawyers, all of the Green River Task Force investigators, and most of the victims' relatives have said they are satisfied with the outcome.

Three of Ridgway's lawyers met with Maleng in April to propose a plea deal. Maleng's initial reaction, he said, was an emphatic "no." But he told defense attorneys he would consider it. Maleng, a bespectacled, ruddy-faced 65-year-old, was first elected county prosecutor in 1978, and has developed a reputation for making thoughtful, principled decisions.

Maleng said he spoke with many people, including friends, and considered Ridgway's plea offer from all conceivable angles, except the millions of dollars it would save the county. He thought about it in terms of his contempt for Ridgway; in terms of his mission, which he said is not only to win cases, but to ensure justice; and in terms of his faith, as a lay Episcopalian minister.

He also considered it as a parent who had lost a child. His daughter, Karen, was killed in a sledding accident in 1989, a month shy of her 13th birthday.

As he was driving to work one morning a few weeks after his meeting with Ridgway's lawyers, he thought of a passage from 1 Corinthians: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face."

Instead of seeing only Ridgway's face, he said, he began to see the other faces involved: the victims, their families and the community.

He called Sheriff Dave Reichert, who had investigated the case as a young detective in the 1980s, and told him Ridgway would live. Reichert solemnly concurred, as did every member of the sheriff's Green River Task Force.

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