A King County Superior Court judge on Friday tossed out the death penalty in the case against accused cop-killer Christopher Monfort, but ruled the case could proceed as a capital case so as not to delay his trial.
It was the second time in three weeks that a judge struck down King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s decision to seek the death penalty in a high-profile murder case. While the judges had different reasons, both rulings centered on the issue of mitigating circumstances.
Satterberg is appealing both rulings to the state Supreme Court.
In Monfort’s case, Chief Criminal Judge Ronald Kessler ruled Satterberg abused his discretion by relying on a “flawed, practically useless” investigation into mitigating factors that could have merited leniency for Monfort — a life sentence instead of death. Kessler said Satterberg considered “minimalist mitigation materials” in reaching his decision to seek the death penalty.
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Monfort, 42, is charged with aggravated murder in the fatal shooting of Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton and attempted first-degree murder in the wounding of Officer Britt Sweeney on Oct. 31, 2009.
Satterberg fired back at the judge’s ruling in a written statement, saying he delayed his decision and gave Monfort’s defense team nearly 10 months to submit his own mitigation package, even though state law requires that a prosecutor decide whether to seek the death penalty within 30 days of a defendant’s arraignment.
“The court ruled that the refusal of (Monfort’s) legal team to provide any evidence of mitigation precludes the prosecutor from filing the notice of intent to seek the death penalty,” Satterberg’s statement says. “The defense has still not provided any evidence of mitigation, more than three years after the arraignment date.”
The statement further said, “in the absence of any information from the defense,” prosecutors considered “all available mitigating information” and decided it wasn’t sufficient to warrant leniency.
Under state law, mitigating factors in potential death-penalty cases can include evidence of an extreme mental disturbance or impairment because of a mental disease or defect.
But it wasn’t until earlier this month that Monfort’s defense team notified the court that it plans to pursue an insanity defense.
According to court records filed by the defense, the mitigation investigator hired by the prosecutor’s office conducted 25 interviews by phone and email with some of Monfort’s associates, including some with limited contact with him, before Satterberg decided to seek the death penalty.
Carl Luer, one of Monfort’s attorneys, said that without considering the defense’s mitigation package, Satterberg didn’t have “a factual basis” to conclude there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances not to merit leniency.
Ian Goodhew, Satterberg’s deputy chief of staff, said it is customary for the defense to provide evidence of mitigating circumstances because prosecutors are barred from talking to a defendant or accessing his or her mental-health records.
“We went above and beyond to look for mitigating information that the defense failed to give us,” he said of Monfort’s case.
Noting that Satterberg declined to seek the death penalty in three other recent cases in which the defense provided evidence of mental illness, Goodhew said Satterberg would consider any new mitigating information provided by Monfort’s defense team.
Kessler said Friday that “the defense has constantly maintained it’s preparing a mitigation package.” He told Monfort’s defense team to give the state the mitigation evidence they’ve gathered to date while continuing with their own investigation into mitigating circumstances.
Kessler said that until the Supreme Court weighs in, “the parties will proceed as if this remains a capital case.” Friday’s ruling “should not delay” the case from proceeding, and both the state and defense should continue preparing for a possible penalty phase should Monfort be convicted at trial, Kessler said.
Monfort is accused of shooting Brenton, 39, and Sweeney, an officer-trainee who is now 36, while they were seated in their parked patrol car in the Leschi neighborhood. Authorities say Monfort had intentionally targeted officers.
The shooting came nine days after police and prosecutors say Monfort 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 railed against police brutality, police said.
On Nov. 6, Monfort was shot by Seattle police detectives after he allegedly tried to shoot Seattle police Sgt. Gary Nelson during a confrontation outside his Tukwila apartment. When police later searched Monfort’s apartment, they found an arsenal of guns, explosives and a manifesto opposing police brutality, police said.
As a result of the shooting, Monfort is paralyzed from the waist down.
Monfort is also charged with arson and two additional counts of attempted first-degree murder — for allegedly pointing a gun at Nelson and for allegedly trying to kill officers at the scene of the firebombings.
Late last month, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell ruled that prosecutors could not seek the death penalty against two people accused of killing a family of six in Carnation, finding that Satterberg erroneously
considered the strength of the state’s evidence against defendants Joseph McEnroe and Michele Anderson in deciding whether to seek the death penalty. Ramsdell ruled that prosecutors should only have weighed whether mitigating circumstances existed in the decision to seek the death penalty.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org