Updated Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:16 PM
Citing a legal defect, a King County judge ruled Thursday that prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty against the two people accused of killing a family of six on Christmas Eve 2007 in Carnation.
Prosecutors immediately vowed to appeal the decision, which hinged on a finding by Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell that prosecutors erred when they considered the strength of their evidence when deciding whether to seek the death penalty against Michele Anderson and her former boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe.
In a 13-page order, Ramsdell wrote that prosecutors should only have weighed if mitigating circumstances existed in guiding their decision to seek the death penalty.
He said that considering the strength of the evidence to prove guilt cannot be applied in deciding to seek the death penalty because that could produce disparate results from case to case and violate equal protection under the law.
McEnroe and Anderson are each charged with six counts of aggravated murder in the deaths of her parents, Wayne Anderson, 60, and his wife, Judith, 61; her brother, Scott, and his wife, Erica, both 32; and the couple’s children, Olivia, 5, and Nathan, 3.
Erica Anderson’s mother, Pam Mantle, was in court with her family when the judge issued the ruling.
“We were just blindsided,” she said Thursday evening. “We’re just regrouping.”
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office issued a statement after the ruling, saying,“We are deeply sympathetic to the families that have waited more than five years for this case to go to trial.”
The statement also said of the decision: “We believe it is wrong. We will appeal on behalf of the six lives lost in this crime and because of the potential impact on all aggravated murder cases throughout the state — past, present and future.”
In his decision, Ramsdell wrote that if a prosecutor may consider the strength of evidence in deciding to seek the death penalty, then “two identically situated defendants presenting the same compelling mitigation could be treated differently by the same prosecutor.”
But that decision “relates solely to the potentially applicable punishment and the State’s ability to prove the absence of sufficient mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt,” the judge added.
McEnroe’s attorneys, joined by Anderson’s defense, argued that prosecutors improperly weighed the evidence of the crime against the mitigation that was presented, but “corrected this error” in other, subsequent potential death-penalty cases, Ramsdell wrote.
During the penalty phase after conviction, jurors are instructed to “have in mind” the crime for which a defendant was convicted, but they are told not to reconsider the strength of the evidence when deciding whether there are mitigating circumstances, he wrote.
“At the penalty phase, guilt has already been found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” Ramsdell wrote. “The purpose of the mitigation phase is to determine the moral culpability of the defendant in light of the crime for which he now stands convicted.”
Anderson and McEnroe are accused of carrying out the killings during a gathering at her parents’ home. Prosecutors contend the defendants, who lived in a trailer on the elder Andersons’ wooded Carnation-area property, planned the shootings because Michele Anderson felt slighted by her parents and was upset they wanted her to pay rent.
The crimes also were motivated by concern over leaving behind witnesses, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2008, Anderson told The Seattle Times in a jailhouse interview that she committed the killings and wanted to die.
Kathryn Ross, who is part of the three-lawyer team representing McEnroe, has repeatedly said he is willing to plead guilty to the murders in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table.
McEnroe’s trial was expected to begin in March, while Anderson’s separate trial is pending.
Anderson, if convicted and sentenced to death, would become the first female on Washington’s death row.
The county has spent more than $5.1 million to defend the pair and $725,000 more to prosecute them, according to the King County Office of Public Defense and the prosecutor’s office. Total cost of McEnroe’s defense is at $2.4 million.
Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this story, which also contains information from Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org