A request by the Innocence Project Northwest for DNA testing has been denied in the case of a man convicted of murdering a Franklin County judge with a pipe bomb in 1974.
Ricky Anthony Young is serving a minimum 77-year sentence for the death of Judge James Lawless.
The Superior Court judge was in his Franklin County Courthouse chambers on June 3, 1974, when he opened a small box marked “personal” and wrapped in brown packing paper. He died instantly after tearing off the wrapper, triggering a pipe bomb.
Just days after the bombing, Lawless was to consider revoking Young’s probation for a 1971 burglary of Prosser drug store, and Young also had a pending arson case.
Young — whose earliest release date is in September 2031, just before his 80th birthday — maintains he is innocent.
He has the support of the Innocence Project Northwest, a Seattle-based legal clinic, which reviews claims of innocence by Washington prisoners and works to free those who have been wrongfully convicted.
The project requested that DNA testing not available at the time of Young’s trial be done on 11 pieces of evidence from the exploded bomb package that have been kept by the Franklin County Clerk’s Office and the sheriff’s department.
Items included a fingerprint matched to Young that was on a piece of paper under a strip of clear tape. It also covers an unidentified print found inside the bomb package, an address label, sections of the paper wrappings and fragments of black electrical tape used to insulate electrical circuitry of the bomb wire.
The absence of Mr. Young’s DNA on one or more of the requested items, would not likely demonstrate his innocence on a more probable that not basis.
Judge Jackie Shea Brown
Young’s attorneys argued that DNA testing of evidence from inside the bomb package could identify the perpetrators.
But Superior Court Judge Jackie Shea Brown recently sent a letter to attorneys in the case denying the request for DNA testing of the evidence.
The two outcomes of the testing that could be favorable for Young likely would not be enough to demonstrate his innocence, she said in the letter.
If Young’s DNA was not found, that would not exonerate him. Nor would finding the presence of another person’s DNA, she said.
The evidence at trial was sufficient to conclude that there was more than one person involved, the judge said.
The evidence also could have been contaminated with DNA by investigators who would not have had protocols in the ’70s to prevent contamination with their DNA, including through sneezing or coughing.
The package also could be contaminated by DNA of those unrelated to the case, she said.
The package was handled by postal employees and court employees before being given to the judge and packing material also could have been handled by people unrelated to the construction of the bomb, such as during manufacturing of materials or in a store.
Shea Brown also considered what potential DNA evidence could show in the context of other evidence against Young.
The court finds this affidavit to be key, credible and persuasive evidence of the defendant’s guilt.
Judge Jackie Shea Brown
The context to be considered was a May 17, 1994, affidavit signed by Young, she said.
Young said he had been baptized as a Christian and “have resolved by my Christian faith to disclose my participation in the murder of James J. Lawless.”
He said he was a member of People’s Army and participated with others to plan the crime, buy parts for the bomb, built the bomb and mail it to the judge.
“The court finds this affidavit to be key, credible and persuasive evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” Shea Brown said in the letter. It was an unsolicited, sworn affidavit by Young for which he received nothing in return, she said.
Young claimed in December 2015 as his attorneys sought DNA testing that he lied in the affidavit.
He remains in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
DNA testing was done previously after a change in Washington law allowed felons serving prison time to request DNA testing at the state’s expense. Young’s attorney requested testing in 2001 on postage stamp fragments from the bomb and on letters from the People’s Army.
Because of a backlog at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, it took three years before officials announced that forensic scientists managed to extract enough DNA from the bomb materials to do more tests. But nothing came of it.
Innocence Project Northwest did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.