Michele Anderson’s aggravated-murder trial is to begin Monday, more than eight years after she is accused of killing six relatives in Carnation. Though she isn’t facing the death penalty, jurors aren’t allowed to know that — which made for some challenges in their selection.
Michele Anderson won’t face the death penalty if convicted of killing six members of her family in rural Carnation on Christmas Eve 2007 — but the jurors who will decide her guilt or innocence aren’t allowed to know that.
Though a jury was chosen Jan. 13 for Anderson’s aggravated-first-degree-murder trial, the judge and attorneys in the case had to walk a “strange little tightrope,” careful not to violate state law by revealing her possible punishment during the jury-selection process.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg had initially sought the death penalty against Anderson, now 37, but he changed his mind in July following two other aggravated-murder trials in which separate juries did not impose death sentences.
One of those cases was against Anderson’s former boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe, who was convicted of the same killings Anderson is accused of committing. McEnroe is currently serving six life sentences.
While McEnroe’s trial took four months, Anderson’s trial is expected to last six weeks. Opening statements, originally scheduled for Jan. 19, were postponed until Monday after a new potential witness came forward.
Construction has been under way in King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell’s eighth-floor courtroom to expand the jury box to accommodate 15 jurors, three of whom will be randomly chosen as alternates after closing arguments. A 16-member jury was also selected for McEnroe’s trial, but his case was heard in a different courtroom.
During jury selection, outside the presence of the final pool of 142 prospective jurors, members of Anderson’s defense team reiterated their standing objections to proceeding to trial: Her attorneys say Anderson is not mentally competent and remains uncooperative, refusing, as she has for the past couple years, to meet with them to review evidence or discuss trial strategy.
“Really nothing has changed. There’s been no improvement in the attorney-client relationship. There’s no change in Ms. Anderson’s mental state,” said defense attorney David Sorenson.
Sorenson and his co-counsel, Colleen O’Connor, have repeatedly asked to withdraw from Anderson’s case, but were again turned down by Ramsdell. Ramsdell said he will stand by his earlier ruling that Anderson is competent and her current attorneys — her third defense team since her arrest more than eight years ago — will continue to represent her.
Anderson and McEnroe were arrested Dec. 26, 2007, after they returned to the rural home in Carnation where two days earlier, King County sheriff’s detectives and prosecutors say, they had fatally shot Anderson’s parents, brother, sister-in-law, and 5-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew. According to detectives, both suspects provided lengthy confessions and Anderson directed them to a bridge where she said McEnroe had tossed their guns into the Stillaguamish River, court records say.
Ten months later, Satterberg announced he would seek the death penalty against the pair.
If a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, prospective jurors are told death is on the table and are then questioned about their opinions on capital punishment. Death-penalty trials comprisetwo parts: an initial phase to determine guilt or innocence — as in any other criminal trial, followed by a second phase in which jurors are asked to decide if someone should be put to death or imprisoned for life.
It is the only circumstance in which a jury — not a judge — determines a defendant’s punishment.
In every other criminal trial, from petty theft to noncapital murder, juries are solely fact-finders who are not to consider punishment when rendering a verdict.
But unlike some other states, Washington case law expressly prohibits jurors in noncapital murder cases from being told that a defendant is not facing the death penalty. The legal rationale is that jurors won’t be as attentive or as serious in their deliberations if they know death isn’t a possible punishment.
The only exception is if the defense provides an on-the-record, tactical reason for telling jurors that a murder defendant is not facing execution.
That exception isn’t in play for Anderson.
During jury selection in Anderson’s case, questions from prospective jurors forced the parties into what Ramsdell later called “an imprecise dance” around the issue.
After one prospective juror asked whether the judge or jury decides punishment in capital cases, Ramsdell responded that juries do. When another juror asked about punishment in Anderson’s case, it prompted a sidebar conversation between the attorneys and judge.
King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott O’Toole was given the OK to reply that “the jury will have nothing to do” with deciding Anderson’s punishment.
Soon after, outside the presence of the prospective jurors, Sorenson asked that the entire pool be dismissed:
“It’s been effectively telegraphed to the jury this is not a capital case … which they’re not entitled to know,” he said.
Ramsdell denied the motion, but acknowledged: “We’re walking this strange little tightrope.” Just as violating case law can be grounds for an appeal court to overturn a conviction and order a new trial, so too is improperly removing a prospective juror from the jury pool.
The parties later questioned a dozen people individually after they indicated that not knowing whether Anderson faces the death penalty could impact their ability to serve as jurors.
One man said he wouldn’t have a problem deciding guilt or innocence, “but I don’t think I can go along with the imposition of the death penalty” due to his moral convictions and religious beliefs.
Ramsdell decided to excuse that juror, saying he couldn’t imagine putting the man through six weeks of emotional turmoil when the death penalty isn’t even an issue.