After a day and a half of deliberating, jurors on May 10 found Patrick Leon Nicholas guilty of the 1991 murder of Sarah Yarborough in Federal Way.
Nicholas did not show any visible reaction to the verdict, but friends and family of Sarah let out tears and sighs of emotion and relief as the jury’s decision was read aloud in court that afternoon at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Nicholas, 59, faced three charges — two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder — for the killing of the 16-year-old Federal Way High School student. The charges concerned the same killing but differed on why Nicholas did it.
Jurors found him not guilty of the first charge, which accused Nicholas of killing Sarah with premeditated intent.
They did find him guilty of the second charge, which accused Nicholas of killing Sarah in the course of attempting to commit rape against her.
And jurors also found him guilty of the third charge, second-degree murder, which accused Nicholas of killing Sarah in the course of attempting to the crime of “indecent liberties” against her.
He was also charged in each count with a special verdict of sexual motivation. Jurors affirmed that special verdict in both of the charges for which they found him guilty.
“Nothing will bring Sarah back, but this is as much justice as we can all expect after so many years, and we’re really grateful the verdict was what it was,” said Mary Beth Thome, a childhood friend of Sarah who spoke to the media after the verdict was delivered with a group of other close Yarborough friends.
The first verdict read aloud in court was the “not guilty” finding on Nicholas’ first count of murder — followed by the “guilty” findings on the other two murder charges.
“There was a lot of relief,” when that first “guilty” finding was read, Thome said. “After the first charge was not guilty, having the second charge come back as guilty was a tremendous sense of relief.”
Sitting in the courtroom with Nicholas was “difficult,” Thome said.
“This is a person who took somebody we loved away from us,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult to be in his presence. … It’s not fair. He shouldn’t have had those thirty years. But it is what it is.”
Nothing will bring Sarah back, but there is closure in knowing Nicholas “can’t hurt anybody” else,” Thome said.
“He’s hurt multiple people in his life,” she said. “Not just Sarah. … He can’t hurt anybody else anymore.”
Thome said she was grateful for the DNA technology that led police to Nicholas and the scientists who developed it. And she shared thanks to the prosecutors in the case, including trial attorneys Celia Lee and Mary Barbosa, and the decades of detectives who never gave up investigating Sarah’s murder.
When asked what she would say to Sarah, if she could say anything: “She probably suffered a lot in the end, and I’d like to say that I’m sorry she had to go through that suffering,” Thome said. “I’m glad somebody’s being held accountable for it. Other than that, I would just say we love you, and we miss you, and it’s because of her that we’re all together. (For) how many people have been here, and how many people loved her, and wanted to support the Yarborough family through this whole thing, it’s a testament to Sarah, and what a beautiful person she was.”
Nicholas is now scheduled for sentencing at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 25.
Sarah Yarborough was a 16-year-old junior, honor student and drill team member who had mistakenly arrived at the school an hour early on the morning of Dec. 14, 1991, thinking she was late for an event. But from the parking lot, she encountered her assailant — Nicholas — who led or forced her north into the brush by the tennis courts.
Nicholas strangled her with her own nylons and left her body on a hill adjacent to her high school’s parking lot on Dec. 14, 1991, police said. He left semen on several items of her clothing, DNA from which was used to identify him as a culprit.
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. 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 prosecutors. Detectives collected DNA from Nicholas after retrieving and testing a cigarette he had smoked outside, and also identified Nicholas as Yarborough’s killer based on his criminal history and circumstantial life details.
The case against Nicholas, who was 27 at the time of Yarborough’s death, relied primarily though not entirely on the DNA evidence.
Police investigators went through hundreds of tips and numerous suspects in the decades prior to landing on Nicholas as a prime suspect. Nicholas hadn’t been investigated in the case prior to the discover by Dr. Fitzpatrick that segments of his DNA matched evidence from the murder scene.
“Beyond the DNA, there is nothing,” Defense attorney David Montes said during closing statements in the case. “And so the DNA has to be right beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Montes said it wasn’t, arguing that the police investigation relied on the use of unreliable genealogy techniques to identify Nicholas. Fitzpatrick, he claimed, was a hobbyist with no formal training in forensic science.
But prosecutors pointed to the fact that a male DNA sample from the crime scene matched the sample from Nicholas, and that the odds that it would match a random individual from the U.S. population was 1 in 120 quadrillion.
Montes argued that the math used to calculate those odds was all wrong because researchers were comparing the likelihood against the wrong population sets. Plus, he argued, Fitzpatrick had confidently given the names of other suspects whose DNA closely matched the evidence — until those matches turned out to be inaccurate.
Prosecutors pointed out that Fitzpatrick provided the lead on Nicholas, but further police work corroborated that lead and found more extreme odds connecting him to the case. The state crime lab determined, for another DNA sample, that it was “590 billion times more likely” that it matched Yarborough and Nicholas than if it matched Yarborough and a random unrelated person from the U.S. population, according to their case.
Plus, Nicholas lived in the area at the time of the killing, had a copy of a 1994 newspaper in his home with an article about Sarah and kept a picture of a cheerleader in a drawer in his kitchen at the time of his arrest. Taken together, the evidence was compelling that Nicholas was the murderer, prosecutors said.
Montes said those were cherry-picked details from Nicholas’ life that didn’t amount to proof that he committed the killing.
A sketch artist’s rendition of the suspect proved to be a Rorschach test. Prosecutors said it bore a “striking” resemblance to Nicholas, while Montes said the sketches didn’t match his client.
Attorneys spent roughly two weeks calling witnesses before resting their cases and delivering closing arguments May 3. The jury elected to take a break for the rest of the week, and only began deliberating May 9.
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