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Reprieve issued for Wash. man convicted of rape, murder of 14-year-old girl

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Gov. Jay Inslee granted a reprieve Thursday to a man who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.

Inslee formally granted the reprieve to Clark Elmore on Thursday, and cited as reasons a “lack of clear deterrent value, high frequency of sentence reversal on appeal, and rising cost,” The Bellingham Herald reported.

In 2014, Inslee announced a moratorium on executions in Washington state. Elmore is the first of Washington’s death row inmates to exhaust his appeals. 

Though Inslee vowed to halt executions, the death penalty remains on the books, CBS affiliate KIRO reports. Once Inslee leaves office, another governor can choose to restart executions at the maximum security prison in Walla Walla, where Elmore has been housed for two decades.

Elmore, of Bellingham, killed his girlfriend’s daughter, Kristy Ohnstad, in a van south of Bellingham in 1995. He raped her, choked her, drove a metal skewer through her skull, beat her and dumped her body in the woods. 

After raping and killing her and dumping her body near Lake Samish, Elmore criticized law enforcement for doing too little to find the girl — and even organized a search party to look for her, KIRO reports. 

He then fled to Oregon, intending to steal his twin brother’s identity, before deciding to return to Bellingham and turn himself in six days after the slaying.

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

Elmore has filed appeal after appeal since then, 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.

The governor’s office says Inslee’s moratorium is not about individual cases and that Ohnstad’s family spoke with Inslee and expressed a preference for Elmore to serve life in prison. 

“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,” the statement from the governor’s office said.

Whatcom County Prosecutor David McEachran met with Inslee last week to ask the governor to reconsider the ban and to make an exception in Elmore’s case, although McEachran said at the time it was a long shot.

“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 eight other death row inmates.

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