State Supreme Court weighs death penalty case

OLYMPIA — Washington’s Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday as it weighs whether King County prosecutors can seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a Seattle police officer.

Christopher Monfort is accused of killing Seattle police Officer Tim Brenton and wounding another officer as they sat in a patrol car on Oct. 31, 2009, as well as setting fires to police cars earlier that month.

He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of aggravated murder, attempted murder and arson.

Nearly 10 months after Monfort was arraigned, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced that he would seek the death penalty. At the time, his office had conducted interviews with more than two dozen of Monfort’s friends, acquaintances and family members to see if there was mitigating evidence that would warrant leniency.

Satterberg had not considered any mitigating evidence presented by defense attorneys, because they still hadn’t given him any.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Kessler ruled in February that the decision to seek the death penalty was invalid because Satterberg relied on a “practically useless” mitigation investigation conducted by his office, rather than wait for evidence from the defense.

Satterberg’s office appealed, saying such decisions properly rest with prosecutors — not judges.

“The Legislature has given this decision to the prosecutor,” King County attorney Deborah Dwyer told the justices.

Satterberg agreed that he would reconsider his decision when the defense team submitted their evidence to him, Dwyer noted. They did so in April, but it didn’t change his mind.

Suzanne Elliott, a lawyer for Monfort, argued that the lower court judge was within his rights to bar Satterberg from seeking the death penalty.

“There are more than sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency in this case,” she said.

Under state law, prosecutors have 30 days from the date of arraignment in a potential capital case to decide whether to seek execution, but that deadline is frequently extended to allow defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence such as evidence of mental issues.

The law says prosecutors must decide whether there “are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency,” but doesn’t specify what prosecutors must consider in making that determination, and doesn’t say they must wait for defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence.

Last month, the court heard similar arguments in another high-profile murder case in King County, after a different Superior Court judge barred Satterberg’s office from seeking the death penalty against two people accused of killing a family of six in Carnation on Christmas Eve 2007.

In that case, the judge said prosecutors improperly considered the strength of their case against Michele Anderson and her former boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe, rather than strictly limiting their analysis to whether mitigating evidence warranted leniency.

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