The attorney for a man who has spent nearly three decades on Nevada’s death row for raping, beating and burning alive an Ely teenager told the Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday that Robert Ybarra is mentally disabled and ineligible to receive the ultimate punishment.
The victim’s family hopes this latest appeal fails, as have all the others.
“All these people are waiting for him to die,” said Robin Griffith, the sister-in-law of Nancy Griffith, whose murder continues to haunt longtime residents of the mining town. “He was given a punishment and they need to carry it out.”
Ybarra, then 25, drove Nancy Griffith to a remote area 20 miles from Ely on Sept. 28, 1979, where he raped and beat her before dousing her in gasoline, setting her on fire and leaving her for dead.
With burns over 75 percent of her body, the 16-year-old walked a mile before she was found by two fishermen. The men left to flag down a passing car and ask its driver to get the police.
The driver was Ybarra, who offered to stay with the girl while the men drove to Ely. Ybarra was unable to find his victim, who hid when she saw his red pickup.
When police arrived, Griffith identified Ybarra and his truck. She later died at a hospital. Her last words were, “I love you, Mom.”
At Ybarra’s trial in 1981, an investigator said Griffith’s blood was on Ybarra’s boots, and that Ybarra had asked him if the girl lived long enough to talk.
Ybarra admitted burning Griffith but denied he raped and beat her. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but was found competent for trial and was sentenced to death after being convicted of first-degree murder and sexual assault.
Appellate attorney Michael Pescetta said Ybarra at age 9 suffered a serious head injury, was plagued by migraines and had an IQ of 71. Mental retardation is defined as an IQ of 70 or lower.
White Pine County District Attorney Richard Sears said there is no evidence Ybarra was ever tested for mental retardation and that tests now wouldn’t prove Ybarra’s status then.
“He’s been on psychotropic medicine for 30 years,” Sears said. “How will we know what his IQ was with that kind of drugging?’
That’s a question Robin Griffith would like answered. “I guess anybody who has been in prison for 30 years might be mentally disabled, but he was competent then. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Her family has grown weary of Ybarra’s appeals and feels betrayed by the system, she said.
“We’re not vengeful people, but the courts gave him the death penalty and 30 years later he’s still appealing. Every time we find out he has another appeal we relive this.”
She said the family would have been happier with a life sentence.
“At least then we could have moved on at some point,” Griffith said. “My mother-in-law panicked every time he appealed.”
On behalf of Ybarra, now 56, Pescetta also argued the trial judge should have removed himself from the case.
Pescetta questioned District Court Judge Steve Dobrescu’s objectivity, because “ruling in Ybarra’s favor” would have undoubtedly cost him an election, and said the judge had a conflict of interest because he once prepared a standard will for the victim’s parents.
The high court rejected his argument in 2007, ruling the minor legal work did not rise to the level of conflict requiring a judge to remove himself from the case.
Suggestions that political considerations influenced the case prompted Chief Justice Ron Parraguirre to note that, “Every judge makes a friend and an enemy every time he rules. It would be nice if no judge had to hear these kinds of cases.”
A decision could be several months away. Ybarra is barred from more appeals, but Griffith isn’t holding out hope that a date with the executioner is near.
“Nancy lived a long time after he burned her alive. She lived that long because she loved her family and she really felt her brothers would come help her. She lived that long to tell them who did this to her,” said Griffith. “Doesn’t she deserve justice?”