Carnation deaths: No closed courtroom when psychologists testify
Balancing a defendant’s right to a fair trial and the public’s right to open courts is a “minefield,” said a King County judge who denied two defense motions on the first day of a hearing to decide if Michele Anderson is competent to stand trial for allegedly killing six fami
Seattle Times staff reporter
A two-day hearing began Wednesday in King County Superior Court to determine if Michele Anderson is mentally competent to stand trial, and potentially face the death penalty, for allegedly killing six members of her family on Christmas Eve 2007 in Carnation.
Juror summonses have already been mailed out for the upcoming trial of Anderson’s co-defendant and former boyfriend Joseph McEnroe, who is also charged with six counts of aggravated first-degree murder. Pretrial motions in the capital case against McEnroe are to begin later this month, with opening statements expected sometime in October.
Should Anderson be found competent, she will be tried after McEnroe. The charges against both carry two possible sentences: life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
Anderson’s attorneys, Colleen O’Connor and David Sorenson, argued Wednesday morning that the courtroom should be closed to the public during testimony by two psychologists — one hired by the defense and the other by the state — and that their competency evaluations be sealed.
Anderson’s right to counsel and a fair trial would be violated if certain, unspecified information contained in the competency evaluations were to be made public, O’Connor said.
King County prosecutors, McEnroe’s defense team and The Seattle Times objected to the closure of the courtroom and the sealing of the reports.
Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell denied both defense motions, saying Anderson’s attorneys did not provide specific, compelling reasons to close the court and seal the reports. He acknowledged that balancing Anderson’s rights with the public’s right to open courts and interest in seeing that only competent people stand trial is “a minefield.”
“The remedy will be reversal (on appeal) if we get it wrong,” Ramsdell said.
Whereas competency evaluations were routinely sealed in the past, that all changed last year when the state Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the public release of a redacted psychological evaluation that found Dr. Louis Chen competent to stand trial on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the August 2011 deaths of his partner and their young son in Seattle.
Though Ramsdell denied a blanket sealing order, he said he would entertain limited redactions to the psychologists’ reports provided the attorneys cited specific legal authority for each one.
Ramsdell granted the state and Anderson’s defense team a 30-minute recess to see if the two sides could agree on redactions to Anderson’s competency evaluations. When court resumed, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott O’Toole told the judge the two sides weren’t in agreement and asked for more time to consult with prosecutors in his office’s appellate unit in order to come up with proposed redactions.
Ramsdell is expected to address the proposed redactions and decide on their legal basis on Thursday.
Dr. Mark Cunningham, a psychologist from Austin, Texas, retained by the defense, and Dr. Brian Judd, a state-retained psychologist from Olympia, are to testify Thursday about the conclusions they reached on the issue of Anderson’s competency to stand trial.
According to court documents, Anderson repeatedly refused to meet with Cunningham, citing “a conflict of interest.”
So far, it’s unclear if she later agreed to be evaluated by Cunningham or if he based his report on Judd’s evaluation of Anderson, which the judge previously ruled could be video-recorded and viewed by the defense psychologist.
Anderson, who spent several months at Western State Hospital earlier this year, has undergone at least two prior evaluations that found her competent to stand trial.
Anderson and McEnroe are accused of fatally shooting Anderson’s family in her parents’ Carnation-area home on Dec. 24, 2007. Killed were her parents, Wayne and Judy Anderson; her brother and his wife, Scott and Erica Anderson; and that couple’s children, 5-year-old Olivia and 3-year-old Nathan.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654