A jury’s decision to not impose the death penalty should force King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to reconsider whether to seek capital punishment.
A KING County jury’s refusal to impose the death penalty on Joseph McEnroe recently was an important moment in efforts to ban capital punishment in Washington.
McEnroe was convicted of a particularly heinous crime: killing six members of his ex-girlfriend’s family on Christmas Eve 2007, including pulling the trigger on a child still in diapers. But the jury appears to have engaged in what’s known as nullification — basing a verdict on conscience, not necessarily law or evidence.
Excellent reporting by The Seattle Times’ Jennifer Sullivan documented how three jurors refused even to deliberate. “I know people were mad,” said one of four dissenting jurors, who prevented the unanimous verdict required for a death sentence. “I made my decision, and my conscience is fine with it.”
That jury room angst illustrates a trend in Washington and nationally, as the public awakens to the fundamental problems with states being agents of death. Nineteen states ban the death penalty. Nebraska joined the list last week. Governors in at least three other states — Washington, Colorado and Oregon — have imposed moratoriums.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium, however, did not dissuade King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg from seeking capital punishment for McEnroe or in two other pending cases — against McEnroe’s girlfriend, Michele Anderson, and alleged cop-killer Christopher Monfort.
But the McEnroe jury’s failure to impose the death penalty should prompt Satterberg to stop seeking capital punishment in King County. Just 26 percent of King County residents support the death penalty, according to an unreleased poll conducted by the ACLU of Washington, an opponent of capital punishment, this spring. Sixty-three percent favored some form of life in prison for these crimes.
That opposition — which is shared by The Seattle Times editorial board — is rooted in philosophical and practical reasons. Prosecuting death-penalty cases costs at least $1 million more than those seeking life in prison. The three recent and current King County death-penalty cases combined cost at least $14 million, and counting.
The death penalty has no proven deterrent value, but is guaranteed to prolong the grieving of victims’ families in years of appeals. Pam Mantle, whose daughter and two grandchildren were shot by McEnroe, told The Seattle Times she and her husband were “happy” with the verdict “because we don’t ever have to deal with it again.”
Out of 33 death sentences imposed since Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1981, just five inmateshave been executed — three of them chose to waive appeals. Four current members of death row have been waiting there since the 1990s.
The jury verdict in the McEnroe case suggests it may be futile to reach for capital punishment in King County. We’ll know more definitively with Monfort, whose case is expected to go to the jury early this week. If convicted, the jury would then hear arguments for and against a death sentence.
Coincidentally, Monfort studied jury nullification as an undergraduate at the University of Washington and advocated for its use. If his jury replicates the McEnroe jury’s outcome, he would be spared death and would die in prison. A second such outcome should fundamentally change Satterberg’s decision to seek the death penalty.