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The state Supreme Court has blocked a King County judge’s
ruling that could have potentially opened the door to guilty pleas — while possibly preventing death sentences — in the slayings of a family of six in Carnation on Christmas Eve 2007.

On Thursday, the high court barred Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell from acting on a defense motion challenging the charges against defendants Joseph McEnroe and Michele Anderson, a move aimed at allowing them to plead guilty to aggravated murder and face life sentences. The Supreme Court wants an opportunity to rule on the motion before the case moves forward.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had asked the Supreme Court to intervene after Ramsdell sided with a defense motion and ruled last month, that a federal case, Alleyne v. United States, took precedence over state case law involving the death penalty.

The main thrust of the Alleyne decision has to do with mandatory minimum sentences, and the U.S. Supreme Court determined that any fact that can increase the mandatory minimum is an “element” of the crime and must be alleged in charging documents.

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In Washington, there are only two penalties for the crime of aggravated first-degree murder: life in prison without the possibility of release, or death. To seek the death penalty, a prosecutor must determine there is an absence of sufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant leniency — a life sentence — and provide a defendant with a special sentencing notice that the death penalty is being sought.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg decided the mitigation submitted by the defense wasn’t sufficient to warrant leniency and issued special notices of his intent to put the question of death to a jury.

Using an analysis of the Alleyne case, Ramsdell ruled that aggravated first-degree murder is the “core crime” for which the penalty is life in prison without the possibility of release. Since the absence of sufficient mitigation increases the penalty to death, insufficient mitigation is an “essential element” of the crime and is the “sole element, which … exposes that defendant to the mandatory sentence of death.”

Because Ramsdell ruled insufficient mitigation is an “essential element” of the crimes, it must be charged in the information notifying the defendants of the crimes they’re accused of, his ruling said.

He gave the state a Feb. 17 deadline to amend charges against McEnroe and Anderson — and if not, Ramsdell said he “will thereafter entertain a defense motion” to accept McEnroe’s guilty pleas to six counts of aggravated first-degree murder, for which he would receive a life sentence.

But prosecutors disagreed, saying Ramsdell’s decision was contrary to state law.

In the motion to the state Supreme Court, prosecutors argued that the defense’s “end game” is to open up a prosecutor’s subjective decision to seek the death penalty to judicial review — which would have “potentially staggering” implications, requiring judges to review thousands of pages of discovery, expert reports and witness interviews, while also violating the separation of powers doctrine.

The Supreme Court, in a four-page order, said a stay is issued in both McEnroe and Anderson’s cases “given the debatability of the superior court’s orders, and the likelihood that the potential benefit to the State of this review would be lost unless a stay is entered.”

The stay will remain in effect until Ramsdell’s decision is argued before the Supreme Court. A date for that argument has not been set.

McEnroe and Anderson were arrested in December 2007 for allegedly killing Anderson’s parents, brother, sister-in-law and the younger couple’s two children in the parents’ Carnation-area home.

McEnroe and Anderson have each been charged with six counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

Although Gov. Jay Inslee this week issued a moratorium on the death penalty, Satterberg said it would not affect his office’s efforts to seek the death penalty for McEnroe or Anderson.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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