If the Carnation massacre doesn’t warrant the death penalty, does anything? A jury’s verdict spared the life of a killer, but it may have helped kill the death penalty around here.
King County is running three death-penalty trials this year. At one time the cases were considered slam-dunk examples of why we still have a death penalty.
The cases are the worst of the worst, involving mass murder and the shooting of a police officer. Plus there’s little doubt the defendants committed the killings.
But now it seems like the death penalty is also on trial.
The decision by a jury May 13 to spare the life of Carnation mass-killer Joseph McEnroe was a shocker. This is a guy who shot and killed multiple people at close range, including two little kids. Of the six murders that Christmas Eve in 2007, he personally pulled the trigger in five.
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If executing a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old doesn’t warrant death, does anything?
As the excellent post-trial reporting by The Seattle Times’ Jennifer Sullivan is showing, the same jurors who swiftly concluded he was guilty were divided when it came to his fate. In the end they split 8 to 4 and opted to give him life in prison without possibility of parole.
What may make this case a bellwether is that some of the jurors were blunt that they just don’t really believe in the death penalty. Too many doubts — not just about the case but about the law. It’s as if they ended up doing a form of jury nullification.
Nullification is when jurors let someone off because they think the underlying law is unjust. It’s controversial, because juries are instructed to follow the law whether they agree with it or not.
But it’s also a fact of life of the court system: Juries can and do weigh whether the law itself is right.
We live in a state where the governor has declared publicly that the death-penalty law is wrong. Gov Jay Inslee said it’s so flawed that he won’t allow any executions while he’s in office. So it’s no wonder some jurors might be having doubts as well.
It’s impossible to know whether what just happened was an isolated occurrence or if “death-penalty doubt” will spread. The jury hearing the case of Christopher Monfort, accused of killing Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton, is expected to begin deliberating in a week or two. If they find him guilty of aggravated first-degree murder, the death-penalty determination will go into the summer.
But the decision to spare McEnroe now creates a major conundrum for the third planned trial. The other alleged Carnation killer, Michele Anderson, has been charged with the same six murders. Her death-penalty trial is supposed to start in September.
If she’s found guilty of the same murders, the justice system is going to have a hard time rationalizing putting her to death when it spared the one who killed five of the six victims.
If anything, that would seem to demonstrate the fickleness of it all.
It took seven years and more than $10 million to get the Carnation trials started, much of that due to wrangling over the death penalty. If there’s any chance of ending this sooner by locking up Michele Anderson forever instead of continuing to pursue a death sentence, King County should take it.
The other remarkable thing about the McEnroe verdict was the reaction of the poor surviving members of this family.
Pam Mantle, who lost her daughter and two grandchildren in the slayings, said she and her husband were surprisingly happy with the outcome because it means, “We don’t ever have to deal with it again. It will be probably better for everybody involved to be able to just kind of put the McEnroe part of this case away.”
That’s a powerful statement. Winning on the death penalty doesn’t bring closure. It brings rounds of appeals and hearings, lasting years, all focused on the killer. So in the end why not lock him up forever, with no possibility of getting out, and try to move on.
It’s understandable King County prosecutors tried for death. But we may look back at this case as a tipping point when we decided not to anymore.