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Originally published September 5, 2013 at 5:01 PM | Page modified September 6, 2013 at 10:55 AM

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High-court ruling puts Carnation murder trial back on track

The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg did not err when he decided to seek the death penalty against a former couple in connection with the Christmas Eve 2007 slayings of six people in Carnation.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The state Supreme Court has ruled that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg did not err when he decided to seek the death penalty against a former couple in connection with the Christmas Eve 2007 slayings of six people in Carnation.

The justices, in their ruling Thursday, ordered the trials of Michele Anderson and her former boyfriend Joseph McEnroe to proceed. If convicted, the two could be sentenced to death.

The unanimous court decision overturns a ruling earlier this year by King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell and puts the nearly 6-year-old case back on track for trial. Opening statements are tentatively scheduled for early next year, prosecutors said.

In January, Ramsdell ruled that prosecutors could not seek the death penalty in the slayings of Anderson’s parents, brother, sister-in-law and the younger couple’s two preschool-aged children. Ramsdell ruled that while Satterberg properly considered “the facts and circumstances” of the crimes, the prosecutor erroneously considered the strength of the state’s evidence against McEnroe and Anderson in deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

The judge wrote in his 13-page order that prosecutors should only have weighed whether mitigating circumstances existed in the decision to seek the death penalty.

Under state law, mitigating factors in potential death-penalty cases can include evidence of an extreme mental disturbance or impairment. Leniency also can be merited if a suspect acted under duress or domination of another person.

Satterberg’s office filed an emergency motion challenging Ramsdell’s decision, asking the Supreme Court to reinstate the death-penalty notice and remand the case to Superior Court for trial.

In its ruling, authored by Justice Charles Wiggins, the Supreme Court determined Satterberg “followed the statutory requirements when he considered whether mitigating circumstances merited leniency and when he determined that they did not.”

Justices said Satterberg weighed the appropriate evidence, in the form of the so-called mitigating circumstances, in making his decision. They said the fact that Satterberg also weighed the strength of the case in making the death penalty decision “is of no consequence.”

“We hold that prosecutors may consider the strength of their cases in deciding whether to file a notice of special sentencing proceeding seeking the death penalty,” the finding read.

In a statement released Thursday, Satterberg’s office said: “We are pleased that the Washington State Supreme Court expeditiously considered our appeal and has permitted this case to proceed to trial with all sentencing options available under State law.”

Pam Mantle, whose grandchildren, son-in-law and daughter, Erica Anderson, were among the victims, said she is pleased with the Supreme Court ruling.

“We want the death penalty. It is what is fair and just considering they laid in wait and massacred [the victims],” Mantle said.

Defense lawyers for McEnroe and Anderson did not return calls for comment.

Anderson, 35, and McEnroe, 34, are charged with aggravated murder in the shooting deaths of three generations of Anderson’s family in rural Carnation. Anderson told The Seattle Times during a June 2008 jailhouse interview that she and McEnroe killed her family in a fit of rage, claiming she had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in May, Senior Deputy Prosecutor James Whisman argued that Ramsdell had overstepped his bounds in deciding to take the death penalty off the table. Whisman argued that under the state’s death-penalty statute, “discretion is placed with the prosecutor” to decide whether to seek capital punishment.

“The court ruled the prosecutor can’t consider the strength of the evidence ... but he wasn’t clear on what he meant by ‘strength of the evidence,’ ” Whisman argued. He said that Ramsdell did not have access to mitigation information on both defendants that was submitted by their defense attorneys, and that the judge had previously denied a defense motion to compel Satterberg to spell out “which factors in the mitigation package he found persuasive and which ones” he didn’t.

But defense attorney Kathryn Ross, who represented Anderson and McEnroe before the Supreme Court, said Satterberg’s decision to seek the death penalty was based only on the evidence and not on the mitigation evidence submitted by the defense. Ross argued that the state’s death-penalty statute is unique in that prosecutors are directed to impose it only if there isn’t sufficient evidence of mitigating factors to merit leniency.

Three weeks after Ramsdell ruled against the death penalty in the Carnation slayings, another King County Superior Court judge, Ronald Kessler, ruled Satterberg abused his discretion by relying on a flawed investigation into mitigating factors that could have merited leniency for accused cop-killer Christopher Monfort. Kessler tossed the death penalty in the case even though the defense team hadn’t provided any mitigation evidence to the state for more than three years after Monfort was charged in the fatal shooting of Seattle police Officer Tim Brenton on Halloween 2009.

Monfort’s case is awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court.

Carl Luer, who is representing Monfort, said on Thursday that he doesn’t think the Supreme Court ruling in the Carnation case will impact Monfort’s case.

“They are really addressing two separate issues. I don’t think you can read much into the way the Supreme Court will go in the Monfort case based on the issue presented in the McEnroe/Anderson case,” Luer said.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan

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