By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Letter to readers Wolfe sentencing

Questions have been raised by some readers after the sentencing of Michael Wolfe to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years, after he pleaded guilty to murdering Karissa Fretwell and their young son, Billy. (“Double-murderer gets life in prison,” News-Register, July 23.)

Chief Deputy District Attorney Kate Lynch addressed how the sentence was reached.

Life sentences in prison are seldom imposed in Yamhill County, because few murders occur here, Lynch said. In Oregon, murder carries a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years, depending on the degree.

The crime of aggravated murder allows for three sentences: death, life without the possibility of parole, and life with the possibility of parole after 30 years. There are two trials: One to decide guilt, and, if the person is convicted, one to decide the sentence.

Trials are a vital part of the process, because police can make mistakes in trying to determine who should be arrested. But they are horrific for family members, involving painful days of testimony about the details of their loved ones’ last hours or minutes, photographs of the body, and the requirement to listen impassively to the arguments of the defense.

The accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but that presumption can be hard to maintain for someone mired in grief and rage, and convinced by the very arrest, that the accused is guilty. Trials are also time and labor intensive for the prosecutors, who have no time to spare, sometimes for weeks, for other criminal cases the office is handling.

In Wolfe’s case, Lynch explained a sentencing agreement was reached after a settlement conference with Senior Judge Eric Bergstrom last month. Wolfe pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, because one of his victims was a child.

“We considered factors such as input from Judge Bergstrom, the strength of the state’s evidence, and chances of a conviction being successfully appealed. The most important factor, however, was input from Karissa and Billy’s surviving family members,” Lynch said. “They have been involved and present at every court proceeding over the last three years and were in full agreement with the resolution.”

Death sentences are imposed even more rarely than life in prison.

“As far as we recall, a Yamhill County jury has imposed the death sentence only once in over 100 years. Pursuing the death sentence in this case would have necessitated a trial, extending the case at trial for at least a year and possibly longer,” Lynch said. In 1999, a jury sentenced Jeffery Dana Sparks to death for the murder of 12-year-old Lacey Renee Robancho. After years of appeals, however, he was re-sentenced in 2020 to life without the possibility of parole.

In the case of Wolfe, “Should a jury have imposed the sentence of death,” Lynch said, “the case would have been litigated in the appellate and federal courts for decades.” Even then, she noted, “No Oregon governor has authorized an execution in over a decade. The last execution in Oregon to take place was in 1997, during Gov. Kitzhaber’s first administration, after the adult in custody chose not to pursue his appeals.”

At Sparks’ re-sentencing trial, Lacey’s grandmother told him, “For the past 22 years it has been all about you. Today is hopefully the last time. I want to make it about Lacey.”

With the sentencing agreement in place, Karissa and Billy Fretwell’s family may have to face the possibility of speaking to a parole board, but will be spared the pain of enduring decades of appeals.

— Nicole Montesano, government reporter



Joel R

Thanks for this follow up article, Nicole. It helps me see the whole picture...especially the perspective of the family of the victims. Given the totality of the circumstances with the legal system, I can see how they came to the decision that they did. If I were in their shoes I'd have done the exact same thing.
There is a decent chance that he won't even be alive thirty years from now. And even if he is still alive then, there is no guarantee that he would get out.
Much better to avoid a trial and decades of appeals in exchange for just the possibility of MAYBE dealing with a parole board in thirty years.

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