Three thousand summonses to prospective jurors won’t be mailed out as planned on Monday after a King County judge issued a ruling that has again delayed trial for a man accused of killing six family members in Carnation more than six years ago.
While Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell ruled that the death penalty is still on the table for Joseph McEnroe and co-defendant, former girlfriend Michele Anderson, the rest of his ruling — based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in June — has left the case in a confusing legal limbo.
“In our estimation, the case cannot practically go to trial with these questions hanging in the air,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Andrea Vitalich told the judge during a hastily-scheduled hearing Thursday.
Six members of Anderson’s family — her parents, brother, sister-in-law and the younger couple’s two children — were gunned down in the parents’ Carnation home on Christmas Eve 2007. McEnroe and Anderson have each been charged with six counts of aggravated first-degree murder, which is punishable by either life in prison without the possibility of parole or death.
Both defense teams have repeatedly sought to have the death penalty tossed from consideration. They briefly prevailed a year ago, when Ramsdell ruled that Prosecutor Dan Satterberg erroneously considered the strength of the evidence when he decided to seek the death penalty against the pair.
Ramsdell said at the time that Satterberg should only have weighed whether sufficient mitigating circumstances — that is, reasons for possible leniency — existed in the decision to seek the death penalty.
McEnroe’s attorneys have said repeatedly that he would plead guilty if the only sentence he could face is life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors appealed Ramsdell’s January 2012 ruling, and in September, the state Supreme Court overturned Ramsdell and ordered the trials to proceed.
McEnroe’s case was moving toward a Feb. 24 trial date (Anderson is to stand trial after him) when the case was again stalled.
Last month, defense attorneys for McEnroe filed a motion seeking to have the court preclude the possibility of the death penalty based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Alleyne v. United States. Anderson’s defense team joined in the motion.
The main thrust of the Alleyne decision has to do with mandatory minimum sentences, and the high court determined that any fact that can increase the mandatory minimum is an “element” of the crime and must be alleged in charging documents.
This is where things get complicated:
Katie Ross, one of McEnroe’s defense attorneys, argues that the absence of sufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant leniency is an “element” of the crime of aggravated first-degree murder.
She argued the “core” crime is aggravated murder, which has a minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. She further argued that a death-penalty case, which she called “capital murder” — a crime that doesn’t actually exist in state law — is a more serious charge than aggravated first-degree murder because it carries the possibility of death.
Based on Alleyne, she argued that the state needed to include the additional element of “absence of sufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant leniency” in the information used to formally charge McEnroe with the crimes in order for the state to seek the death penalty.
However, the state typically files charging information within 72 hours of a defendant’s arrest, but prosecutors must wait at least 30 days before announcing whether they intend to seek the death penalty, and only after they’ve considered possible mitigating evidence. A special notice is then filed with the court if the death penalty is being sought.
Vitalich and fellow Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott O’Toole argued that the Alleyne decision doesn’t apply to McEnroe and Anderson.
If the defense is arguing that McEnroe wasn’t properly notified in charging documents of the state’s intent to seek the death penalty, O’Toole said the state’s special sentencing notice is like “notice on steroids.” Second, the decision whether to impose the death penalty rests with jurors — and is the only instance
in which a jury makes a sentencing decision instead of a judge.
In a Jan. 2 ruling, Ramsdell agreed with the defense that “the absence of sufficient mitigation is an element of the crime for which death is the mandatory punishment.”
But he went on to say that tossing out the death penalty “is at best premature and is, therefore, denied without prejudice,” according to his ruling.
On Thursday, Ramsdell said he believes the Alleyne decision is a “game-changer,” but he doesn’t exactly know the best way to proceed. He requested additional briefs from the state and defense and scheduled another hearing for Jan. 22.
When O’Toole asked Ramsdell for guidance on next steps, the judge replied:
“I honestly don’ know what the appropriate course of action would be for you at this point. In all candor, Mr. O’Toole, I can’t give you an answer because I don’t know what the answer is,” Ramsdell said, adding there are “potential mine fields I don’t know how to navigate.”
Information from Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org