Patrick Nicholas, 59, (right) confers with his defense attorney David Montes after opening statements are made Monday, April 17, 2023, at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. Nicholas is standing trial for the December 1991 killing of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough. Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Federal Way's Yarborough murder trial goes to the jury

Jurors will now decide if Patrick Nicholas killed the Federal Way High School student in 1991.

The Sarah Yarborough murder trial is in the hands of the jury.

Attorneys delivered closing arguments on May 3 in the case, summarizing about two weeks of testimony over DNA technology, witness statements and other evidence presented in the trial.

Jurors plan to begin deliberating on Tuesday, May 9, according to the court.

Prosecuting attorney Mary Barbosa said it’s the totality of the evidence that should convict 59-year-old Patrick Leon Nicholas of killing Yarborough, a 16-year-old Federal Way High School student, on Dec. 14, 1991.

Aside from DNA evidence tying him to the scene, investigators also found a 1994 newspaper article in Nicholas’s home about Yarborough, and a picture of a cheerleader, torn from a magazine, in his kitchen drawer. And it was in December 1991 that he moved to a Des Moines residence 7.8 miles from where the teen was killed.

On its own, any of those pieces of evidence could be explained away as coincidence, Barbosa said: “But when you look at all of those pieces together, this is how you know Patrick Nicholas is the one who killed Sarah Yarborough.”

David Montes, Nicholas’s lawyer, asked jurors not to “fall into the trap” that he argues ensnared law enforcement and prosecutors.

“Beyond the DNA, there is nothing,” he said. “And so the DNA has to be right beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But the DNA wasn’t right, he said, arguing that the state’s case relied on a faulty calculation of the odds tying Nicholas to the scene. Nor did Nicholas match the description given by witnesses, Montes argued.

The case

Yarborough’s assailant strangled and killed her on or near a hill adjacent to her high school’s parking lot on Dec. 14, 1991, police said. The assailant left semen on several items of her clothing.

In 2019, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder of Identifiers International, contacted the King County Sheriff’s Office and said she identified persons of interest in the case — Nicholas and his brother, according to documents. Identifiers International is a team of international forensic genealogists.

They ruled out the brother because his DNA profile already existed within the law enforcement database, according to documents. Nicholas, age 27 at the time of Yarborough’s death, held a previous conviction of attempted rape in the first degree from 1983 in Benton County. According to documents, a 1993 case showed Nicholas lived in SeaTac approximately 6 miles from Federal Way High School.

Detectives collected Nicholas’s DNA after retrieving and testing a cigarette he had smoked outside, according to court documents. Nicholas’s DNA profile matched. Prosecutors and investigators also identified Nicholas as Yarborough’s killer based on his criminal history and circumstantial life details.

The three charges Nicholas faces — two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder — are all for allegedly killing Sarah, but they concern the act itself differently.

The first count accuses him of killing her with premeditated intent; the second, that he was attempting to rape her and killed her in the course of that attempt; and the third, that he was trying to commit “indecent liberties” (sexual contact by force) against her, and in the course of doing so, caused her death.

Jurors could find him guilty on any, all or none of the charges. He is also charged in each count with a special verdict of sexual motivation.

Defense attorney Montes argued in court that the police investigation relied on the use of unreliable genealogy technology to identify Nicholas, and he sought to discredit Fitzpatrick in his cross-examination of her on April 24.

“We were talking about the possibility of false matches,” Montes said. “You acknowledge that could happen?”

“I acknowledge it happens on rare occasions,” Fitzpatrick said.

“And you’re not aware of any studies that have been done that systematically determine how often (false matches occur),” Montes said.

“That’s correct. I’m not aware of those,” Fitzpatrick said.

Prosecutors asked Fitzpatrick about her experience as a genealogist and various cases she worked on and solved previously.

“Every year I go to the International Symposium on Human Identification,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve given case study presentations. ... I’m a member of the American Academy of Forensic Science.”

Montes pressed Fitzpatrick on her lack of formal education in genetics and biology.

She responded, telling him she worked with and learned from top experts in the field in the world.

“So your training could most accurately be described as informal, correct?” Montes said.

“I work with some of the top scientists and they work with me. ... That’s my education right there. That’s better than being in a classroom,” Fitzpatrick said.

Mirror file photos
Sarah Yarborough, 16, was murdered on Federal Way High School’s campus in 1991. Next to her photo are sketches of the suspect provided by witness accounts.

Mirror file photos Sarah Yarborough, 16, was murdered on Federal Way High School’s campus in 1991. Next to her photo are sketches of the suspect provided by witness accounts.

Closing arguments

Defense attorney Montes began his closing argument as he did his opening statement — by positing that detectives in the case were desperate to name a suspect and finally put the unsolved murder case to bed.

“No one disagrees that what happened was horrific,” Montes said.

But the prosecution’s case cherry-picked the 1994 newspaper about Sarah from a stack of newspapers, he said, and attempted to play on jurors’ emotions to turn understandable disgust and outrage over the killing into retribution toward his client.

“At the end of the day, what the state has presented you with adds up to nothing, other than a description that doesn’t match Mr. Nicholas,” Montes said. “I’m asking you to find him not guilty.”

The emotional scale of the case didn’t make detectives “desperate” as defense attorney Montes claimed, prosecuting attorney Barbosa said.

Instead it “made them determined. It made them thorough, creative, innovative, open to emergent fields that presented themselves,” she said. “There was nothing special about the fall of 2019 (when Nicholas was arrested). ... They were doing what they had done for the last 28 years.”

Jurors “are never going to know” how Yarborough’s assailant led or forced her from her car to the site where her body was found, nor other details of the crime, Barbosa said, because she isn’t here to tell them.

But those are not details the state needs to prove, she said; prosecutors merely must prove Nicholas was the one who killed her. And scans of the DNA evidence repeatedly gave very close matches to Nicholas, leaving astronomically low odds that the DNA attributed to Nicholas did not belong to an unrelated person.

Furthermore, Fitzpatrick may have brought police a lead, but it was researchers like those at the Washington State Patrol who further tested and confirmed the forensic DNA link to Nicholas, Barbosa said.

“You may leave here with questions,” Barbosa said. “But still know ... Patrick Nicholas killed Sarah Yarborough that day.”

A sketch artist’s rendition of the suspect proved to be a Rorschach test. Witnesses had also described Nicholas as having a “reddened,” pock-marked, pimpled or acne-filled faced.

“The resemblance is quite striking,” Barbosa said of its similarity to Nicholas. The “redness” on his face could have been from Yarborough scratching him in a desperate struggle to survive during his attack. There’s no reason to assume it had to be acne, Barbosa said.

The sketch and witness accounts don’t resemble Nicholas, Montes said. His long hair parted differently, Montes said, and Nicholas looked older than the high-school-age suspect witnesses described. Most importantly, Nicholas had and still has clear skin.

“They instructed the sketch artist to draw a crater-type face because that’s what they saw,” Montes said.

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