BREMERTON, Wash. — When dealing with killers, the best piece of advice Roger Hunko ever received was upon first meeting them, look for something you like about them.
For Hunko, 70, the venerable Kitsap County defense attorney whose expertise on death penalty trials involved him in some of the more notable and heinous Washington state cases through the past three decades, it was usually easy.
“I look at people and I like them,” said Hunko, who is retiring after first being licensed in Washington state in 1979. “Although I never expected to know as many murderers as I do.”
Hunko had been co-counsel on the case of Gabriel Gaeta, charged in the 2014 rape and murder of 6-year-old Jenise Wright, but he was released at his own request. Last month the state Supreme Court ruled on another of his cases, and he has one more hearing, a sentencing for a drug case.
After that, he has no plans to practice again. In fact, he has no real plans at all except to close on the sale of his home and roam the country in a 24-foot RV with his wife, Kathleen, and their two dogs, Olive and Twinks.
“Just going to go, gypsy life,” Hunko said. “I like not having a plan.”
For somebody known almost as much for his skill as an attorney as his mellow, likable demeanor, it may be the most fitting retirement. After all, Hunko took the law school entrance exam on a whim, after a night of drinking tequila and playing dice, only to score in the top 9 percent in the country.
“I wasn’t hung over, I was still drunk,” Hunko said.
He estimated that he had been on about 30 aggravated murder cases, and of the death penalty cases he took, only one client was condemned to die — Robert Lee Yates, convicted in 2002 of murdering two women in Pierce County and number five of eight on the state’s death row.
Those who worked for him at his firm in Port Orchard, and those who argued against him in cases where the stakes couldn’t be higher, said Hunko was a straight-forward advocate — professional and passionate — but never underhanded or abrasive. He lifted weights competently in his younger days and wears loud shirts, but he is not known for flamboyance.
“He really practiced from the heart,” said Kevin Kelly, now chief deputy prosecutor in Kitsap County District Court. In 1996, Kelly was one of the prosecutors who argued against Hunko in Kitsap County’s last death penalty trial, the case of Steven R. Morgan.
Tina Robinson, Kitsap County prosecutor, was hired by Hunko in 2006 for her first job out of law school. She said he taught her to love her job as a defense attorney and how to relate to clients as people.
“He will fight till the end for his clients,” she said. “He is a great guy with a great heart and he is a very good attorney.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on the Fourth of July, Hunko was a twin. His brother, Robert, died as an infant. He was raised in New Jersey and served four years in the Air Force before roaming the country in a Volkswagen bus. He eventually made his way to Pocatello, Idaho, where he went to college, majoring in history, and he later decided to give law school a shot. He says now that at the time, he didn’t know what lawyers actually did.
He attributes his success to his time spent working as a bartender, where he became a student of human nature, as well as his love of puzzles. In ways, working a case is like solving a puzzle, he said.
“Kind of put it together and make it look right,” he said, adding later that in his early days he languished over preparations, only to change course.
“I found out that I couldn’t look at notes and talk to jurors, so I didn’t do it anymore, I just ad lib it,” he said.
His opposition to the death penalty cemented following the execution of Ted Bundy by the state of Florida in 1989. Although the death penalty is still on the books, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014.
In keeping with his quirky sense of humor, Hunko subscribed to an especially lurid tabloid for reading material in his law firm’s waiting room. Following Bundy’s execution, the tabloid published autopsy photos of Bundy. That did it.
“I thought anything that cheapened life that much can’t be good for society,” he said.
He tried death penalty cases all over the state and was the final attorney who represented Mitchell Rupe, who became famous for being the condemned man too heavy to hang. Rupe was convicted of killing two during an Olympia bank robbery. A judge found that hanging Rupe — hanging was then the state’s only means of executions — could result in him being decapitated, which amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Rupe had been sentenced to die in Thurston County twice before, but after those verdicts were overturned Hunko got the case, and in 2000 he was able to persuade a single juror to vote no. To receive death a jury must vote unanimously, so Rupe received life in prison, where he died six years later.
Contrary to the urban legend, Hunko says Rupe’s attorneys never encouraged him to keep eating as a way of staving off his execution. Hunko noted that lawmakers quickly authorized lethal injection, and that Rupe’s weight was due to a medical condition that made him retain water.
He testified about the matter in front of state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
“I told her, but she didn’t believe me, it’s more salacious to say he ate his way through it,” Hunko said.
Hunko keeps a sense of humor about his cases, but he said some of the facts would get to him.
“The hardest ones are when children are killed,” he said. “Sometimes after looking at the pictures I have to wait a few days before I go see my client because I’m still angry. But somebody has to do it.”
Although he refuses to admit to any plans beyond a trip to Canada, and then down to California, he loves food and said he may consider writing a cookbook.
“I’m a better cook than I am an attorney,” he said.
Information from: Kitsap Sun, http://www.kitsapsun.com/