Prosecutors are certain Francisco J. Resendez Miranda was in a rural Benton County cornfield last August when three people from Pasco were shot dead.
The question is: Just what role did the 24-year-old Umatilla man play in the triple homicide?
Resendez Miranda was not alone. Investigators know at least one other person was involved, based on evidence from the scene, but no one else has been charged.
When deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a suspect in an aggravated murder case, Washington law says it can’t be applied to one person if someone else is more culpable.
“The theory is, if you give the ultimate penalty to somebody, that is the person who has to have ultimate responsibility,” said Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller, who told Judge Bruce Spanner earlier this week that he will not seek the death penalty for Resendez Miranda.
The fact that Resendez Miranda might have been an accomplice and not the actual triggerman in the slayings, including the death of a woman who was nearly nine months pregnant, was key in the decision that could have led to an eventual execution.
Resendez Miranda is charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder. That means that if convicted of even one count, he will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without parole. His trial is set for Nov. 2.
“We have to follow the law, especially in the state of Washington with the 9th Circuit (Court of Appeals). There is a case that says there can’t be any doubt, and this case does have proof problems,” Miller told the Herald. “We know there is more than one person who committed the murders. We don’t know beyond a reasonable doubt who the other people are yet, and we’re still working on that.”
Miller — who has helped train other county prosecutors on the issue — says he could ask for the death penalty, but knows there’s virtually no chance of it being upheld on appeal and carried out.
He said he is the only active prosecutor in the state who has seen a death penalty case all the way through to execution. Jeremy Sagastegui died by lethal injection for the 1995 killing of a child and two women.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg handled the now-executed Cal Coburn Brown’s death row appeals, though it was the late Prosecutor Norm Maleng who got the conviction and death sentence for the killer. Satterberg recently got an aggravated murder conviction for Seattle cop-killer Christopher Monfort, and the death penalty phase is expected to begin next week.
Washington has nine convicted murderers on death row, according to the state Department of Corrections. The oldest case is from a 1988 fatal bludgeoning in Kitsap County. The most recent is the 2011 murder of a corrections officer by an inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County.
The state has executed 78 men since 1904. Aside from the three most recent executions, which were by lethal injection, all of them have been by hanging.
In February 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment for as long as he’s in office. Oregon has had a similar moratorium since 2011.
After Inslee’s announcement last year, Miller said it wouldn’t prevent him from considering the death penalty if the circumstances of a case merit it, because the governor could change as soon as two years from now while a case is still working through the judicial system.
While prosecutors say they are “comfortable” they will get a conviction against Resendez Miranda, they can’t prove he was the most culpable in the crime and acknowledge it is a circumstantial case.
“If we had the evidence and I thought it would sustain on appeal, I think this case would be appropriate for the death penalty,” Miller said. “I think what the people went through was horrible,” along with the fact that a pregnant woman was killed.
The bodies of Abigail Torres-Renteria, 23, Victoria Torres, 19, and David Perez-Saucedo, 22, were found Aug. 9 on farmland off Nine Canyon Road.
Autopsies showed the three Pasco residents died from at least one gunshot wound.
The charges against Resendez Miranda include the aggravating circumstances of several victims and that Torres-Renteria was almost nine months pregnant. Under Washington law, a murder charge cannot be filed for an unborn baby.
Resendez Miranda worked with Perez-Saucedo at a Wyckoff Farms property along the Columbia River in Paterson.
Court documents show the slayings might have been in retaliation for a break-in at Resendez Miranda’s apartment the night before. The three victims, along with a fourth person, went to Umatilla late on Aug. 8, possibly to a party.
Benton County sheriff’s officials have said Resendez Miranda’s two brothers and father were wanted for questioning.
However, authorities suspect the three Umatilla men have left the United States.
Miller said his office lost its best witness in the case — the man who went with the victims to Umatilla that night — after he was named in previous news reports. The man has said he can’t remember what Resendez Miranda looks like and he refused to appear in court.
Miller said investigators have not been able to track the man down, which has “substantially weakened our case, but hopefully we will have time to rehabilitate that.”
Looking back on other Washington death penalty cases, Miller said there has been basically no question of guilt.
But the case of Resendez Miranda doesn’t come remotely close to the criteria set by the appeals court.
“The courts have said we’re not going to risk executing an innocent person, especially in Washington,” Miller said.