After Prior Jury's Life Verdict, Washington Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty in "One of the Worst Crimes We've Ever Had"

King County (Washington) Prosecutor Dan Satterberg (pictured) announced that his office will no longer seek the death penalty against Michele Anderson after a jury returned a life sentence for her co-defendant, Joseph McEnroe. McEnroe and Anderson were charged with killing six members of Anderson's family in 2007 in what Satterberg called "one of the worse crimes we've ever had in King County." Satterberg explained his decision in a news conference on July 29, saying, "To proceed with the death penalty against defendant Anderson, in light of the sentence imposed [on] defendant McEnroe, would not be in the interest of justice." Pam Mantle, the mother of one of the victims, said she was relieved by the decision. “It’s been devastating for all of our friends and family,” said Mantle. “We’re all just worn out from the whole thing. It’s almost eight years.“ Less than one week ago, on July 23, after a highly publicized six-month trial, a King County jury sentenced a mentally ill defendant, Christopher Monfort, to a life sentence in the killing of a Seattle police officer. Anderson has spent time in a state mental institution during her pretrial incarceration, portending extensive presentation of mental health evidence if the death penalty was pursued in her case. Seeking the death penalty against Anderson, McEnroe, and Monfort has cost King County taxpayers more than $15 million in defense costs alone. A recent Seattle University study found that cases where the death penalty is sought cost an additional $1 million, on average, compared to non-death penalty cases.

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Bill Introduced to Abolish Washington's Death Penalty

Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.

COSTS: Washington's Death Penalty Is Costing Taxpayers Millions

A Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in Washington found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said, “What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.” (Although Washington's death penalty was reinstated in 1981, the study examined cases from 1997 onwards. Using only cases in the study, the gross bill to taxpayers for the death penalty will be about $120 million. Washington has carried out five executions since reinstatement, implying a cost of $24 million per execution. In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.)

COSTS: Washington State Is Spending Tens of Millions on Death Penalty

Three capital cases in one county have already cost Washington almost $10 million, and have barely begun. For the trial of Christopher Monfort, King County has already spent over $4 million, and it is still in the jury selection phase. Two other capital cases in the county have cost a combined $4.9 million, and the trials have not started. The capital case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, which is believed to be the most expensive case in Washington's history, cost about $12 million and resulted in a sentence of life without parole. In February, Governor Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington, highlighting both the costs and the arbitrariness of the death penalty, noting, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga said, "It is a complete waste of resources and time. We've had five executions in 40 years. Seventy-five to 80 percent of these cases are reversed."

NEW VOICES: Former State Health Official Warns of More Botched Executions

Dr. Marc Stern, the former assistant secretary of healthcare for the Washington Department of Corrections, recently commented on physician participation in executions in the wake of the botched lethal injections in Oklahoma and Arizona. Dr. Stern resigned rather than cooperate with his state's execution plan. He explained his views, "Although its foundation is in medical science, lethal injection is not a medical procedure: it has no therapeutic value, and it is not taught in medical school. A 'successful' lethal injection would require the training and expertise of a medical professional. Finding and accessing a vein – especially in someone who is older, obese or has abused drugs – can be challenging. Choosing a proper medication dose for a patient, monitoring medication administration and its effects, and making necessary course corrections need the expertise of a professional. But legitimate medical procedures are subject to scientific study, open discussion among peers, training, supervisory oversight and improvements in technique. Lethal injection will never benefit from these safeguards for one critically important reason: it violates medical ethics." He acknowledged that some medical professionals are willing to anonymously participate in the process. "However," Stern wrote, "we will continue to risk botched executions because they are conducted in a scientific vacuum."

Read the op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Former Washington Corrections Officials Support Halting Executions

In an op-ed in the Seattle Times, two former Washington state corrections officials voiced their support of Gov. Jay Inslee's decision to put executions on hold. Dick Morgan (pictured, L), a former Director of Prisons, and Eldon Vail (pictured, R), former Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, wrote about their participation in the state's 5 executions, saying, "We have witnessed visibly shaken staff carry out a questionable law that condones killing inmates who have been captured, locked behind bars and long since ceased being a threat to the public." They agreed with the governor that the death penalty is too costly and applied unfairly, and added, "Ultimately, the death penalty is not about whether a given person deserves to live or die — it's about whether government should be making that call." In an opposing op-ed, former Kitsap County deputy prosecutor Brian Moran highlighted the heinous crimes committed by death row inmates and Washington's use of proportionality review, which he said ensures that death sentences are proportional and fair.

STUDIES: Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants

According to a recent study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. Nicholas Brown, general counsel to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said, "It's positive to see that prosecutors aren't unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment. At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries." The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. Gov. Inslee recently placed a moratorium on executions, citing the unequal application of the death penalty as one of his reasons for halting executions.

COSTS: Death Penalty Cases Can Mean Bankruptcy for Small Counties

Washington Cost Chart
Click to enlarge

County administrators in Washington state say a single death penalty case could cause bankruptcy in their county. Court costs are paid at a county level, meaning a lengthy and expensive death penalty trial can seriously threaten the county's ability to pay for other priorities. Jim Jones, the former president of the Washington County Administrative Association, said several counties told him, “If we had a death penalty case, and had to pay $1 million (in legal costs), we’d go bankrupt.” If the death penalty is not sought, such cases cost a lot less. In the late 1990's, Okanogan County was forced to put a hold on all equipment purchases, including the replacement of worn-out police cars, in order to pay for one death penalty prosecution. Last year, the $1 million cost of a death penalty retrial caused a "budget emergency" in Clallam County. Two months into the process, the prosecutor decided to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence. Washington has a fund to defray "extraordinary criminal justice costs," but counties typically receive only a small fraction of the reimbursement they request.