Yosemite killer goes on trial; only issue is the death penalty

Thursday July 11, 2002

SAN JOSE — It was one of the most infamous crimes in California history: Three women disappeared while visiting Yosemite National Park and were savagely killed by the handyman at their motel. Caught months later after beheading a nature guide, Cary Stayner gave the FBI a detailed confession to all four murders. 

Three years later, Stayner, 40, is finally going on trial for killing the tourists, with opening statements expected Monday. 

Despite the notoriety, there is an anti-climactic aspect to Stayner’s trial. He already is serving life without parole in federal prison after pleading guilty to killing the park guide, Joie Armstrong. 

But state prosecutors want to execute him. 

Stayner, who once said he would prefer the death penalty to life in prison, has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Executing him will require slogging through a trial that is expected to last almost three months and cost taxpayers $3 million. Then there are the appeals. 

“You have to imagine there are better ways of spending the money, even though I support the death penalty,” said Ken Hawkins, the auditor for Mariposa County (population 16,000), where the killings occurred. 

The county, which has an annual budget of $31 million, has spent $940,000 on the case and expects to shell out at least $2 million more for the prosecution’s costs and Stayner’s defense. Most of the costs are being reimbursed by the state. 

“Even if you are successful in getting the death penalty, that’s still setting up 15 years of appeals,” Hawkins said. “If you’re just looking at dollars and cents, you think about what could be spent on children in schools, roads. You think about what you’re trading just to drive home a point that the guy should be executed.” 

Mariposa County District Attorney Christine Johnson did not return calls seeking comment. Prosecutors handling the case refused comment.