The defense team for accused cop-killer Christopher Monfort apparently believes his case — and quite likely his life — will be won or lost long before the first witness takes the stand in his upcoming trial.
Monfort, 45, is accused of fatally shooting Seattle police Officer Tim Brenton and wounding then-rookie Officer Britt Sweeney in their patrol car on Halloween night 2009.
With jury selection in Monfort’s trial expected in early September, the King County Department of Public Defense recently approved $60,690 in public funds to hire a jury consultant to help defense attorneys “weed out individuals who … are unqualified to sit as jurors in a capital case” and select “the most fair-minded jurors possible,” according to court records.
Their reasoning? Jurors don’t hear any mitigating evidence that could warrant a life sentence instead of the death penalty until after returning a guilty verdict, the defense noted in recent motions.
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They point out that research has shown jurors’ decision-making in death-penalty cases is often premature, beginning during voir dire, or jury selection.
As a result, “The conventional wisdom is that most capital trials are won or lost in jury selection,” defense attorney Stacey MacDonald wrote in one recent motion.
As an alternative to hiring a jury consultant, Monfort’s defense has suggested seeking a change of venue, citing vast, ongoing media coverage and “prejudicial news reporting” about the case.
The defense motion cites “the public’s belief that Mr. Monfort is guilty as seen in news media articles,” and “public outrage over” the 2009 shooting as reasons to justify moving the trial outside King County.
The shooting came nine days after Monfort allegedly firebombed four police vehicles at a city maintenance yard. Police said one of the makeshift bombs was set to go off as police and firefighters arrived to investigate the initial blasts.
A note left behind at the arson site railed against police brutality, police said.
The expense of hiring a jury consultant — which could increase if jury selection takes longer than a month — is a small fraction of the mounting cost of a criminal case that is on pace to become one of the priciest and longest in King County history.
Through the end of May, the defense had spent nearly $3.7 million on Monfort’s case, while the prosecution’s costs — which don’t include the cost of investigative work by law enforcement or forensic work done at the state Crime Lab — have totaled $607,277.
Pretrial motions are scheduled to begin Aug. 4, followed by the start of jury selection in early September, the records show. Based on previous capital trials in King County, seating a jury could take up to eight weeks, MacDonald’s motion says.
Meanwhile, Monfort has been undergoing a sanity evaluation by a Boston-based psychiatrist hired by the state, which is expected to be completed by the end of this week, said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Monfort’s attorneys have indicated their client plans to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
In February, Gov. Jay Inslee announced no one would be executed while he’s in office, but he did not commute the sentences of inmates on death row. Prosecutors have said the move would have a minimal affect on future cases because a subsequent governor could reinstate the death penalty.
The motion filed for a jury consultant also shows Monfort’s defense team is worried about tipping its hand.
The motion by MacDonald, the defense attorney, notes that requests for jury consultants are routinely sealed. But the defense’s most-recent motion for a jury consultant, filed in May, was not.
“The trial court has provided no basis for this inexplicable reversal of course. As a result, aspects of the defense trial preparation and strategy will be laid out for the public and state to read and digest,” the motion says.
Monfort would not have to disclose the information “if he were able to afford private counsel,” and the court’s refusal to seal the funding request for an expert jury consultant places Monfort “at a considerable disadvantage due entirely to his indigence,” it says.
Carl Luer, one of three public defenders on Monfort’s defense team, said in an interview that seating a capital jury is pretty much impossible, citing years of academic research by the Capital Jury Project, based at the University of Albany, State University of New York.
“The system tends to weed out more jurors that are inclined toward a life sentence than a death sentence, so you end up with a jury in general that is more inclined to vote for the death penalty in their deliberations,” Luer said. “ … It’s literally impossible to seat a jury in a capital case that will comply with all the constitutional requirements set forth by the courts.”
The trial consultant and psychotherapist hired by the defense team is Bret Dillingham of Lawrence, Kan., who served as a defense jury consultant during the last death-penalty trial in King County, in which a jury sentenced Conner Schierman to death for killing four neighbors and burning down their Kirkland house in July 2006.
Monfort, who is charged with aggravated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and arson, was shot and paralyzed below the waist by detectives who showed up at his Tukwila apartment building a week after Brenton was killed in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood.
His defense team has previously said Monfort’s physical and mental condition have deteriorated since his arrest. The defense announced last year that Monfort would plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges against him.
A defense motion filed in April notes “Mr. Monfort’s mental condition at the time of the crimes is likely to be a hotly contested issue” at trial.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org