Prosecutor appeals death sentence decision in Carnation slayings

Prosecutor appeals death sentence decision in Carnation slayings
Michele Anderson, left, and John McEnroe are seen in court on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.
SEATTLE -- As promised, the King County prosecutor has appealed a decision that could take the death penalty off the table for two Carnation residents accused of killing four adults and two children in a Christmas Eve massacre.

The appeal came days after King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell found that Prosecutor Dan Satterberg wrongly considered the strength of the evidence against the accused killers when he opted to seek a death sentence in the December 2007 slayings.

Ramsdell ruled Thursday that the Satterberg "erred as a matter of law in considering the strength of the evidence on the issue of guilt against" the alleged killers, Joseph McEnroe and Michelle Anderson.

In doing so, Ramsdell essentially overruled Satterberg's decision to ask a jury to put both to death for killing six members of Anderson's family. But the ultimate impact of Ramsdell's decision is far from clear; even if upheld, it wouldn't necessarily prevent prosecutors from pursuing a death sentence.

Detailing their concerns with the decision in a brief filed late Monday, prosecutors attacked Ramsdell's decision on several fronts. The state Supreme Court is expected to consider the appeal.

Writing the court, Senior Deputy Prosecutors Andrea Vitalich and James Whisman argued another constitutional concern -- the separation of powers -- prevents Ramsdell from second-guessing the elected prosecutor's decision to seek a death sentence.

"The Washington Supreme Court has held repeatedly that the prosecutor's exercise of discretion in deciding whether to seek the death penalty is similar to his or her exercise of discretion in deciding whether to charge a defendant with a crime," the prosecutors said in the appeal.

"In this case," they continued, "the trial court overturned the equivalent of a charging decision based on the prosecutor's consideration of the available evidence - the most fundamental consideration driving any charging decision in any case, capital or otherwise. As such, the trial court's ruling impermissibly infringes on an executive function on wholly untenable grounds."

Vitalich and Whisman went on to argue Ramsdell ignored precedent that supports their position in issuing his decision. They also suggested Ramsdell's decision is premature until Anderson or McEnroe has been condemned to death.

Ramsdell's decision followed more than five years of litigation in the case, which has been subjected to series of delays. McEnroe and Anderson, charged three days after the slayings, had been slated to face a jury later in 2013.

Defense attorneys for the former couple had previously unsuccessfully sought to have the death sentence taken off the table for their clients. They previously made similar but, according to Ramsdell's decision, distinct arguments that the death penalty is being used unevenly in Washington.

Such arguments - that executing some killers and sparing others without an enforced standard amounts to un-Constitutional punishment - won over the U.S. Supreme Court when it briefly abolished capital punishment in the mid-1970s. Prosecutors in Washington believed standards adopted by the state when it reinstituted the death penalty had largely resolved the issue. Defense attorneys in capital cases - including Anderson and McEnroe's - contend that death sentences are not sought evenly for a number of reasons, and that prosecutors are not held to a reasonable standard when deciding who they'll seek to execute.

According to prosecutors, Anderson and McEnroe gunned down Anderson's parents, her brother and sister-in-law and that couple's two children, aged 6 and 3. Each faces six counts of aggravated murder, the only crime in the state that can carry a death sentence.

Anderson and McEnroe first killed Anderson's parents, Wayne and Judy, at their Carnation home, prosecutors argue. They are alleged to have then turned their guns on 6-year-old Olivia Anderson and her brother, Nathan, 3. They were shot to death alongside their parents, Scott Anderson and Erica Mantle Anderson, as all four arrived for a Christmas Eve celebration.

Shortly after the killings, Anderson told police she felt slighted by her parents, on whose property she and McEnroe were living when the shooting occurred, according to prosecutors' statements. Police say both admitted to the killings shortly after being arrested at the crime scene the day the bodies were discovered.

Since Satterberg announced he would seek execution in the case in October 2008, defense attorneys for Anderson and McEnroe have fought vigorously to have capital punishment moved off the table.

Attorneys for Anderson have argued that she is mentally ill and should not face a death sentence, despite her protests to the contrary. In letters sent from jail, Anderson initially expressed a desire to be put to death, seeing her execution as a way to make right her wrong; her attorneys later said she no longer holds that view.

First offering mitigating evidence in an attempt to sway Satterberg from seeking a death sentence, the attorneys in recent months have argued that the state capital punishment system is flawed to the point of unconstitutionality.

Arguing before Ramsdell in December 2009, McEnroe attorney Katie Ross claimed that additions to the death penalty statute make it applicable to most killers even though it is applied only to a few. That, she claimed, makes the statute's application arbitrary and, as such, unconstitutional.

Similar complaints in part prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out death penalty statutes across the nation in 1972. Washington State revived the practice eleven years later, creating a system in which prosecutors can ask that a jury sentence aggravated murder defendants to death.

Under Washington law, prosecutors must prove one of 14 factors to secure an aggravated murder conviction. In McEnroe and Anderson's case, prosecutors focused on the multiple victims clause of the statute, which allows for conviction if more than one person was slain.

In the Thursday ruling, Ramsdell dismissed the so-called "death notice" filed in 2008 against Anderson and McEnroe. Ramsdell faulted Satterberg for considering the strength of the evidence in the case -- presumably the confession by Anderson -- when deciding to seek execution.

Ramsdell opined that relying on the strength of the evidence in deciding whether to ask for a death sentence could yield absurd and unconstitutional results.

Presenting a hypothetical, Ramsdell suggested that a prosecutor facing two otherwise identical killers and considering the strength of the evidence would seek to execute one who confessed but spare the other who denied wrongdoing. Essentially, Ramsdell suggested that a murderer could end up being executed for confessing, or spared for denying his or her crimes.

"The difference in the result has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual moral culpability of the respective defendants but hinges rather on the wholly unrelated factor of the strength of the evidence," Ramsdell said in the dismissal.

Responding to the ruling, prosecutors claimed Ramsdell's ruling was "unsound as a matter of logic" in part because the strength of the evidence bound to the facts of the case, which the prosecutor obviously must consider.

"Surely the law cannot require a prosecutor to ignore strong evidence of guilt in a capital case simply because the evidence comes from the defendant's own mouth," Vitalich and Whisman told the court.

The appeal is expected to be forwarded to the state Supreme Court for consideration. Attorneys for Anderson and McEnroe will be filing arguments in coming weeks.

McEnroe and Anderson remain jailed pending trial.