State of Washington v. Wanrow Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

State of Washington v. Wanrow is a lawsuit that challenged the murder conviction of Yvonne Swan Wanrow on the grounds of a woman’s right to self-defense against harm to herself or her child.

Yvonne Wanrow, a Colville Native American from the Spokane, Washington area, shot a 62-year-old known child molester, William Wesler, after he attacked her son. Wesler had also previously raped her babysitter’s seven-year-old daughter, giving her a sexually transmitted infection.

Wanrow was convicted by an all-white jury on Mother’s Day in August 1973 of second-degree felony murder and first-degree assault for the fatal shooting of Mr. Wesler and for wounding his drinking companion. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

During the trial, she was represented by local counsel in Spokane who subsequently appealed the conviction. In August 1975, the Washington State Court of Appeals reversed her conviction, based on the illegal use of her tape recorded conversations with the police following the incident. Anxious that a precedent not be set against similar tape recordings in the future, the State appealed the reversal to the Supreme Court of Washington.

Wanrow came to the Center for help. CCR lawyers, as part of an all-woman defense team, argued in the State Supreme Court against the use of tape recording and submitted a supplemental brief attacking the sex stereotyped instructions on the issue of self-defense submitted to the jury at the close of the trial. CCR argued that the judge’s failure to direct the jury to consider all the circumstances which led up to the shooting from Wanrow’s own perspective prejudiced her case and that failure to apply such individualized standard was prejudicial to all woman claiming self-defense.

In a landmark ruling, the Washington Supreme Court, sitting en banc, upheld CCR’s arguments and declared that Wanrow was entitled to have a jury consider her actions in the light of her “perceptions of the situation, including those perceptions which were the product of our nation’s long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination.” The ruling, the first in the country recognizing the particular legal problems of women who defend themselves or their children from male attackers, was again affirmed by the Washington Supreme Court in denying the prosecutor’s petition for rehearing.

The prosecutor scheduled Wanrow’s new trial for October 1977. Pre-trial preparations reflected the serious work and novel development of the legal issues in this case. The defense team filed a motion to dismiss the case in the interests of justice. Church leaders from the Spokane area filed an amicus brief on her behalf. Both briefs argued that the unresponsiveness of the police and courts was to blame for Wanrow’s plight, stating that if the police had been willing to help, the shootings would not have occurred. That motion was denied.

In September 1977, CCR challenged Washington State’s felony murder statute on constitutional and statutory grounds. This statute as applied in Wanrow’s case allowed second-degree assault, already included in the homicide, to be the underlying felony for felony-murder. The impact of this rule is that the State is relieved of its fundamental burden in a murder prosecution—providing the defendant’s intent to kill. When the trial judge refused to dismiss Wanrow’s felony murder charge on this ground, CCR moved for direct review of the trial judge’s ruling by the Washington Supreme Court. An amicus brief in support of that motion was filed by the Seattle-King County Public Defender’s office.

Just three weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, the court agreed to review the statute. Trial on the felony court’s determination of its legality, and the trial court granted the prosecutor’s request to stay the trial on the assault charge as well. This interlocutory appeal was argued by CCR attorney Liz Schneider in the Washington Supreme Court on March 13, 1978. The Seattle-King County Public Defender’s Association argued as amicus in support. In December 1978, the court affirmed the constitutionality of the rule and in February 1979, it denied a defense motion for reconsideration.

On April 26, 1978, Wanrow ended her seven-year ordeal in the Washington State courts and was freed. Wanrow pleaded guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter and second-degree assault in Spokane County Superior Court. She was sentenced to five years’ probation by Judge Harold Clarke.