King County Wants Derailed Death Penalty Case Back On Track
The Washington Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in the case of the Christmas Eve murders of six people in Carnation in 2007.
The central issue in this case is when prosecutors should consider the strength of the evidence against defendants in a capital murder case. The parties differed on whether evidence should be a consideration in deciding to seek the death penalty.
Last January, a King County judge told prosecutors they could no longer seek the death penalty in the trial of Joseph McEnroe and Michele Anderson. The judge, Jeffrey Ramsdell, said prosecutors were wrong to evaluate the strength of the evidence against the two defendants in seeking the death penalty. Ramsdell said evidence is something wealthier counties can produce more of and that could skew who gets put to death.
During oral arguments, Washington Supreme Court Justice Charles Wiggins pursued Ramsdell’s idea that wealthier counties can hypothetically gather more evidence than poor counties. “The defendant is just unfortunate to be in a better-funded county that develops better evidence against him,” he said.
King County prosecutor James Whisman said every case is different, and funding for prosecutors is just one element of that. “That’s just a degree of uncertainty that’s going to always exist in the law,” he said. Whisman said prosecutors, not Judge Ramsdell, have the discretion to determine the charges against McEnroe and Anderson, and whether to seek the death penalty.
But Kathryn Lund Ross, who represented McEnroe and Anderson, said when seeking the death penalty, prosecutors were only supposed to consider whether the defendants deserved leniency for any reason.
Ross said they must think about "whether a person is redeemable," and "whether they have circumstances in their lives that makes them less morally culpable." Factors can include whether the defendant was abused, was a drug addict, has a low I.Q., or anything that renders them less “morally culpable.”
Ross said prosecutors declined to evaluate this type of evidence for McEnroe and Anderson as they’re required to do under state law.
In June, the Washington Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in King County’s other high-profile death penalty case, which has also been placed on hold. Christopher Monfort is accused of killing Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton and injuring his partner. In that case, another King County judge also said King County prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty because they did not look at mitigating evidence in Monfort’s background before making their decision.