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The Green River Killer’s Lawyer

Mark Prothero knows it’s a label that will stick

Photo by Mike Hipple

Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Harris Meyer on May 27, 2010


Driving south of Sea-Tac Airport in his Ford Ranger pickup, Mark W. Prothero describes a seemingly ordinary suburban life—son of a boat-builder, long marriage to his high school sweetheart, father of two athletic children, swim coach, school volunteer.

But as he cruises just blocks from his office in Kent, he animatedly points out bridges and gullies along the Green River where, over a nearly 20-year span of time, his infamous client Gary Ridgway dumped some of the bodies of young prostitutes and runaways. After having sex with his victims, Ridgway would strangle them from behind. Taking his right hand off the steering wheel, Prothero demonstrates Ridgway’s killing technique, then adds that Ridgway returned on occasion to engage in necrophilia.

Prothero, 54, is a veteran criminal defense attorney who co-led the eight-lawyer team that won Ridgway a plea deal in 2003, sparing his life. He says talking about the case—including the monstrous horrors—is therapy for him. He gives as many as 10 public presentations a year, including one on the western coast of Mexico in early April, based on his 2006 book, Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer. Out of respect to the families of Ridgway’s victims, he accepts no fees.

“There was a shitload of awful stuff I was absorbing, and it was all inside me,” says Prothero, a mellow, down-to-earth man who looks a lot like Tom Hanks. “I couldn’t talk to Kelly [Prothero’s wife] about it. Writing the book and doing these presentations have been my catharsis.”

King County Superior Court Judge Brian Gain, the county’s presiding judge when the Ridgway case started, says, “It takes a special person with a strong psyche and balance in their life to deal with a lot of evil and not let it adversely affect them. Because you’re getting into the mind of a serial killer, and that’s scary.” He calls Prothero “a good guy who does a great job for his clients.”

The Ridgway trial judge, Richard A. Jones, who’s now a federal district court judge in Seattle, says not many attorneys could have handled that pressure-cooker of a case. “There are few lawyers who could step up to the plate and continue on with the odds stacked, prepare a defense, and provide the leadership of the Ridgway team the way Mark did,” Jones says.

Prothero has successfully handled other difficult cases—including a rare instance last year of getting prosecutors to drop a murder charge after convincing them his client was innocent—and is considered one of Washington state’s top experts in DNA and forensic evidence. But he accepts that he’ll always be known as the Green River Killer’s lawyer. He keeps some mementos of the case in his office. Next to his computer screen is a recent photo of Ridgway at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where the former truck painter is serving 48 consecutive life sentences. He points out that the case was an all-consuming, defining moment in his career.

“It was the case of a career,” Prothero says in an interview at his office at Hanis Irvine Prothero, where he practices criminal defense. “It has legs because it’s the darker side of life. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this won’t go away.”

In his view, the keys to success in the Ridgway case—as well as in more recent cases—were persistence, patience, team-coaching skills, and the credibility he’s developed with prosecutors as a longtime criminal defense attorney. “It’s years of being honest and hardworking and never doing sleazy things,” he says.

The lead prosecutor in the Ridgway case agrees that mutual trust was critical in reaching the difficult plea deal, given the political pressure to impose the death penalty, the national media spotlight, and the tough legal issues. The late King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng announced at the outset that he would not bargain away the death penalty—only to reverse himself later.

“The whole thing had to be conducted in secret, to prevent potential jurors from hearing about the negotiations, and there had to be a great deal of good faith between the parties,” says Jeff Baird, a senior deputy in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “My confidence in Mark’s honesty and integrity was important. It wouldn’t have happened without that confidence and trust.”

The Would-Be Coach

When he was younger, Prothero never imagined himself as a criminal defense lawyer. He narrates his personal history while giving a tour of Green River Killer landmarks, stopping to point out where clusters of victims were found. A little later, he points to the single-story green rambler house, located on a block of modest, closely spaced homes, where Ridgway murdered as many as 30 of his 48 known victims. “No one noticed all these women going in and not coming out,” Prothero says. “It’s amazing he got away with it.” His three wives over the two-decade period say they never noticed anything amiss, either.

Growing up in Renton, just south of Seattle, Prothero was a champion high school and college swimmer, and thought he would become a teacher and coach. He didn’t see himself working in his family’s renowned wooden boat-building business. Later, going to law school at the University of San Diego as a way to “postpone real life,” he became interested in environmental law and thought about working as a green lobbyist.

After graduating, however, he moved back to Seattle, and while working in environmental law, handled some drunk-driving cases on the side and wanted more courtroom experience. In 1983, a year after he married Kelly, Prothero took a job at the Associated Counsel for the Accused, a nonprofit law firm that serves as one of King County’s four public defender agencies. He quickly fell in love with criminal defense work. It was consistent with his leftist politics.

Prothero handled his first aggravated murder case in 1987, working with his mentor Donald Madsen, now director of the 75-attorney Associated Counsel for the Accused. “We tried the life out of that case,” Madsen recalls. “He was a relatively new felony attorney at the time, and I was very much impressed, because he analyzed it well and wasn’t overwhelmed.” Madsen says Prothero has since become a wonderful mentor and teacher for other attorneys.

Prothero’s first high-profile murder case was the Queen Anne ax murder in 1990. He represented a mentally disabled young man named James Cushing who was accused of killing an elderly woman asleep in her bed in the quiet, upscale Seattle neighborhood. On his wall, there’s a drawing by a courtroom artist of Cushing and Prothero, the latter mustachioed and sporting a mullet hairdo. The lawyer’s insanity defense failed, and Cushing was sentenced to life. “When I’d visit, he wanted me to read him comic books,” Prothero recalls with some sadness.

Death-Penalty Foe is Born

Early in his career, Prothero felt the death penalty might be justified for “the worst of the worst.” Then, in 1995, he got his first capital case, and came to the conclusion the death sentence is unfairly applied, wastes resources, and doesn’t deter crime. “I’ve seen the inner workings of the minds of these people, and it’s no more of a deterrent than life in prison,” he says. He became an ardent foe of the death penalty—even for a predatory killer like Gary Ridgway.

Prothero learned to relate to mentally ill and psychopathic clients. Since leaving public defender work in 2004 to go into private practice at Hanis Irvine Prothero, he misses working on that skill.

“Mark has a strange way of looking at people as human beings regardless of what they’ve done,” says his wife. “He just knows everyone deserves to have someone standing up next to them.”

That ability helped him while he was in near-daily contact with Ridgway from his assignment to the case when Ridgway was arrested in November 2001 to the sentencing in November 2003.

“As a defense attorney, you have to distinguish between sickness and bad behavior,” Prothero says. “Basically, people aren’t evil. I try to find good in them and work with that. Some people are just really bad people. But Gary was not one of them.” On the surface, at least, no one would have known he was a killer, Prothero says. “He was one of the nicest, most respectful people. The monster part of him was completely hidden.”

For 18 months after his arrest based on DNA evidence, the mousy, slight-framed man proclaimed his innocence to his attorneys. During that time, Prothero, in charge of the penalty phase of the case, worked to build friendship and trust with Ridgway. He actually looked forward to those long sessions spent building a relationship with a mentally troubled client in need of help.

“I told him I had to work on the premise that he was guilty,” Prothero says. “We’d talk about the weather, the Seattle Mariners, my daughter, anything but the facts of the case. If I had told him I thought he was innocent, we might never have gotten the plea.”

Then, in early April 2003, after his older brother and sister-in-law said they loved him no matter what and didn’t want him to die, a tearful Ridgway told Prothero that he’d committed the murders and was willing to confess to get a plea deal.

During that month, Prothero spent hours every day with Ridgway, patiently gathering the horrendous details, which Ridgway had never told anyone. But he was the only member of the legal team who could know, since the other lawyers had to continue preparing for a trial to prove Ridgway’s innocence in case a plea deal couldn’t be worked out.

But he wasn’t sure his client, who had proven secretive and deceptive up to that point, would give up enough accurate information to sway Maleng, who had said he wouldn’t consider a plea deal. So Prothero faced the emotional pressure of having learned the locations of dozens of bodies—without knowing whether he would have to keep Ridgway’s ghastly secrets for the rest of his life.

“I realized Gary and I were the only two people who knew where 20 or 30 bodies were located,” Prothero says. That’s in addition to more than 40 already discovered by authorities. “It weighed on me. I had to consciously put that out of mind or I couldn’t sleep.”

His wife confirms that. Even though her husband didn’t tell her anything specific, “I knew something had happened the day Gary started confessing [to] all the murders,” Kelly says. “Mark wasn’t sleeping well. He knew there was a chance he might have to carry that burden forever. Luckily everything worked out, or it could have eaten him up.”

At the end of April, his head full of horrors, Prothero and his fellow defense attorneys, Tony Savage and Todd Gruenhagen, went to meet with Maleng. On the elevator up, he says, “My mind was buzzing. I was thinking, ‘What if Maleng says no?’” Hearing Maleng say he’d consider a deal if Ridgway’s information was good, Prothero recalls, was “a huge relief in terms of what I knew about where the bodies were.”

Many people believe that his work in arguing for adequate funding from the county for experts and other expenses—defense costs eventually totaled $2 million to $3 million, even without a trial—was an important factor in Maleng’s decision to negotiate a deal. Maleng denied that, and Prothero says he took him at his word. But some predicted the trial and appeals ultimately could have cost the county $60 million. “My work in getting the appropriate funding showed them it would cost a lot,” Prothero says.

“Cost may have been a factor,” Gain says. “But the overwhelming factor was the ability to bring closure to a substantial number of unsolved cases. The defense attorneys handled the plea bargaining extremely well, and that was the key. Mark and the other attorneys serve as an example of how dedicated, professional attorneys should work.”

Beyond Ridgway

A more recent triumph for Prothero was getting murder charges dropped last year against Glenn Proctor, who was accused of shooting an innocent bystander during a 2008 altercation involving Proctor and several other men at a bus station. An eyewitness had identified him as the shooter.

Along with court-appointed public defender Diane Zumwalt and a video expert, Prothero pored over extremely grainy security footage of the incident. They were able to convince senior deputy prosecuting attorney Don Raz and the police that the shooter’s facial structure and clothing were different from Proctor’s—even producing Proctor’s Atlanta Braves cap that was visible on another person, not the shooter, in the video.

Raz credits the unusual dismissal to Prothero’s hard work and their mutual respect from prior cases. “One, when Mark tells you something, you can trust him,” he says. “Two, he worked real hard to find the facts that would be convincing to me. And he had the confidence to present the factual problems to me before trial. I’m not sure that would have happened with other attorneys.”

The defense attorney returns the praise. “A lot of prosecutors will say, ‘It’s a weak case, let’s bargain it down.’ This was just a matter of a good, honorable prosecutor saying, ‘We got the wrong guy.’”

Prothero says the Proctor case illustrates the shortcomings of standard tools, which include such things as eyewitness and fingerprint identification. He is working with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL) in lobbying the state Legislature to reform forensic evidence practices. WACDL recently succeeded in getting a defense attorney added to the state Forensic Investigation Council, which oversees the State Patrol’s Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau. He urges defense attorneys to use last year’s National Research Council report on strengthening forensic evidence as authority for challenging unreliable evidence in court.

These days, Prothero isn’t eager to take any more capital cases because they are grueling and the county pays only $90 an hour. He still loves defense work, however, and says he’ll probably die in his office because lawyers in his field “don’t make enough money to stop working.” He enjoys his part-time work as a pro-tem judge filling in for vacationing judges. He also coaches an all-age swimming group of mentally and physically disabled people.

Certainly, there’s no let-up in the demand for him to speak about the Green River Killer case. Gain teases Prothero about having had one case in his career and milking it for all it’s worth. Baird says he can understand why people are fascinated by the case and want to hear Prothero talk about it, though he personally doesn’t like to revisit it.

The mother of one of Ridgway’s victims said in 2003 that it was better to keep Ridgway alive to find out how and why he became a serial killer. But despite the countless hours Prothero spent with him, even he can only guess. His book, he admits, fails to deliver on the promise of its subtitle: “Unraveling the mind of the Green River Killer? It’s still raveled. It’s just as mysterious as before.”

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