In arguments before the justices Thursday, the King County Prosecutor's Office argued that Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell overstepped his authority by taking capital punishment off the table, The Seattle Times reported.
Ramsdell ruled in January that in making their decision to seek execution, prosecutors should only have considered whether mitigating evidence warranted leniency for the defendants, Michele Anderson and her former boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe. Instead, they also considered the strength of their case, the judge said.
Senior deputy prosecutor James Whisman argued that Ramsdell didn't have access to all of the mitigation evidence his office considered, and he said decisions to seek the death penalty are not reviewable by the judiciary because they are charging decisions, which rest with the elected prosecutor.
Anderson and McEnroe are charged with aggravated first-degree murder in the slaughter of Anderson's family -- her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and her young niece and nephew. The only possible penalties for aggravated first-degree murder are life without release and 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.
Attorney Kathryn Ross, who represented the defendants before the Supreme Court, 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.
"I guess that's why we're here -- to decide how to read that statute. Is mitigation the only thing they consider" in deciding to seek the death penalty, said Chief Justice Barbara Madsen.
Outside the courtroom, Pam Mantle -- whose daughter Erica Anderson and grandchildren Nathan and Olivia were among those killed -- said the constant delays in the case have taken a toll.
"Everything has been put on hold. You just wait and wait and nothing happens," she said.
Three weeks after Ramsdell issued his ruling, King County Superior Court Judge Ronald Kessler tossed the death penalty in another high-profile case: the 2009 killing of Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton. Kessler ruled that prosecutor Dan Satterberg abused his discretion by relying on a flawed investigation into mitigating factors that could have merited leniency for the defendant, Christopher Monfort.
The Supreme Court is to hear oral arguments in Monfort's case June 27.
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