40 years ago, Judge James Lawless killed by pipe bomb in Franklin County Courthouse

June 1, 2014 

Judge James Lawless didn't know what was inside the small box delivered to his Pasco chambers 40 years ago today.

Unwittingly, county employees had picked up the parcel from the Prosser post office, taken it down the road to the Benton County Courthouse and then driven it to the Franklin County Courthouse in downtown Pasco.

Lawless and his colleagues made light of the fact that it was "a pretty package." But once alone, Lawless began to tear off the brown wrapper, triggering the pipe bomb that ended his life.

The tragic death of a longtime Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge led to gradual changes in judicial procedures -- from the handling and inspection of county mail to the hiring of full-time armed bailiffs and tighter security at the courthouses.

His convicted killer, Ricky Anthony Young, remains locked up in a state prison after two partial fingerprints were found underneath tape on a piece of paper from the deadly package.

Fingerprint evidence 'damning'

Lawless was viewed as an intellectual and was highly respected in the Tri-City legal community. He's been memorialized with the naming of a Pasco courtroom and a Richland park.

Yet Young, now 62, has held strong during the decades to his position that he wasn't involved in the killing of the 50-year-old father of five.

He has sent numerous public disclosure requests to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office for documents from his case folder and has filed legal briefings in repeated attempts to show his innocence.

Then-Franklin County Prosecutor Jim Rabideau always believed others may have played a role in the crime, but for him there's no question he put the right man behind bars.

He previously has called the fingerprint evidence "damning," saying it is difficult to explain why else that would be on a piece of bomb fragment, and that Young is "peddling upstream" with all his legal requests.

Lawless "ought to be remembered for being a fair-minded judge that didn't deserve to be killed," Rabideau recently told the Herald. "Judges don't get killed very often. ... It was one of those things that was quite startling."

He thinks Young had "beefs" because of other criminal cases.

The judge died just days before he was to consider revoking Young's probation for a 1971 burglary of a Prosser drug store. Young, who was from Prosser and had an extensive criminal record, also had a pending arson case at the time of the bombing.

'Friend to everybody'

Rabideau moved to the Tri-Cities in the mid-1950s to practice law in Richland and recalls Lawless running for a position on the bench when Judge B.B. Horrigan was forced to retire because of his age. Lawless donned a black robe in 1956.

"Jim Lawless, the best way to say it, was a friend to everybody on the bar, and he was an easy man to talk with and visit with," Rabideau said. "He just spent a lot of time trying to give. He tried to be real fair on anything he did, and he was one of those fellows, if he disagreed with you, you learned after a while his style."

Rabideau was on Whidbey Island for two weeks of Naval Reserve training when he received a phone call June 3, 1974, about the bombing. At that time, the county prosecutor also was the coroner, and Rabideau was asked to come back to town.

A break in the case didn't come until August, when Young's fingerprint was discovered in the evidence by agents from what was then known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The package about the size of a legal envelope box also had other fingerprints.

Shortly after Young was arrested, a group calling itself the People's Army sent letters to at least three news agencies, including the Tri-City Herald. The identical three-page letters claimed Young wasn't responsible and contained detailed information about the bomb and its manufacturer.

It took two trials to convict Young. The first ended in a mistrial, when the jury couldn't reach a verdict.

A tip from a prisoner at the Yakima County jail helped lead officials to more evidence they needed to convict Young of first-degree murder. He was given a minimum sentence of 77 years.

No other suspects found

In 2001, Young took advantage of a change in Washington law that allows felons serving prison time to request DNA testing at the state's expense. Attorney Sid Wurzburg, who had represented Young since 1974, sent a letter to Steve Lowe, then-Franklin County prosecutor, asking for testing on the three letters from the People's Army and postage stamp fragments from the bomb.

Wurzburg of Spirit Lake, Idaho, felt the developments in science were enough to reliably test the small amount of saliva on the stamps.

Because of a backlog at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and the fact that it was a closed case, it was three years until officials announced that forensic scientists managed to extract enough DNA from the bomb materials to do more tests. But nothing came of it.

Young's niece told the Herald in 2005 that her uncle was having a rough time in prison, including time in solitary confinement because of threats from other inmates. His relatives were confident Young eventually would be exonerated.

Former prosecutor Lowe said federal postal inspectors followed up on the information that at least one other person may have been involved. No other suspects were found, so the case was closed.

Sheriff Richard Lathim said his office has received a large number of public disclosure requests in recent years from Young and his lawyers.

"It's taken quite a bit of time to provide" those documents from Young's case folder, Lathim said. Office staff has worked on it for several months, he said. "No matter what DNA you find, it doesn't take away from the fact his fingerprint was on the packaging material," Lathim said.

Protesting his innocence

Wurzburg disagrees, and said that's why Young is pushing to clear his name. However, he said he couldn't discuss details because of attorney-client privilege. The retired attorney said about two weeks ago, he was going over old papers and found a letter from a juror in the first trial. Her letter said exactly what Wurzburg always has believed.

"It was circumstantial and unbelievable and, as you know, he's always protested his innocence," Wurzburg said.

"Jurors are a lot more sophisticated today, and I seriously question whether there could be a conviction with today's jury and today's evidence and the testimony that would be available," Wurzburg said. "I'm still bothered by it, obviously."

Young has been housed in different prisons through the years, including Walla Walla's Washington State Penitentiary. He is at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a medium-security facility in Aberdeen.

His earliest possible release date is Sept. 23, 2031, shortly before his 80th birthday.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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