King County’s death-penalty dilemma: Soaring cost worth it?




The cost of prosecuting two men and a woman accused of two of the most heinous crimes in King County in recent years is $656,564 and counting.

The cost of defending them is even higher: $4.3 million, and also climbing.

Like other counties in the state, King County is struggling with the rising cost of criminal justice, which has forced Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to eliminate the jobs of 36 prosecutors since 2008. But while budget constraints have forced some counties to all but abandon death-penalty cases, King County currently has two active capital cases.

A third, last year’s prosecution of Conner Schierman for killing a Kirkland family of four in 2006, has thus far cost the county $2.4 million.

The county’s current death-penalty cases include the prosecution of Christopher Monfort, who is accused of ambushing two Seattle police officers, killing one, on Halloween night 2009. Two other defendants, Michele Anderson and Joseph McEnroe, could also face execution if convicted of the slayings of six members of Anderson’s family on Christmas Eve 2007.

While trials for the three defendants are months off, defense lawyers are racking up costs for expert witnesses, investigators, forensic analysis and other elements crucial for death-penalty trials. In the meantime, prosecutors, police officers and crime-lab analysts are also tallying up costs while prepping for the trials.

Portland-based defense attorney Jeff Ellis, who handles death-penalty cases across the country, said the high costs of prosecuting death-penalty cases — which can also include years of appeals — has resulted in a drop in death-penalty cases. King County, with two cases, is an anomaly, he said.

“There is a downturn in the number of death-penalty sentences being sought and imposed because of the costs associated with them,” Ellis said. “What’s happening now [in King County] is a reverse of what’s happening nationwide.”

In 2010, there were 46 executions in the U.S., including one in Washington state — a 50 percent drop since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Satterberg defends the county’s filing of death-penalty cases despite the high cost. He blames much of the increased costs on what he calls an “industry” that has been created by death-penalty attorneys.

“It is the law of our state and a punishment we reserve for the worst of the worst offenders,” he said of the death penalty. “If people want to change the policy they should do so through their elected representatives. It shouldn’t be done by defense attorneys running up the bill.”

The most recent study of state death-penalty costs indicated that a death-penalty case generates roughly $470,000 more in costs at the trial level than a murder case in which the death penalty is not sought — plus an additional $70,000 or so in court costs, a figure that includes courtroom personnel. The same study, released by the Washington State Bar Association in 2006, found that more than $200,000 on average is spent on appeal costs.

The total cost of prosecuting and defending Schierman, 29, who was condemned to death last year for killing four members of a Kirkland family in July 2006, will likely rise much higher than the current $2.4 million. Now that his case is on appeal, it’s unclear how much more will be spent on legal costs and how long he will be on death row.

Cal Coburn Brown, another King County defendant, was put to death last September for the May 1991 rape and murder of Holly Washa, 21, in a SeaTac motel. His execution came more than 16 years after his conviction.

The seven men remaining on Washington’s death row have been there an average of 12 years and four months, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

V. David Hocraffer, who heads King County’s Office of Public Defense, agrees defending people who face execution is expensive, but he believes he has a solution.

“Financially, if the goal is public safety you could save money by not having the death penalty on the table. There are places where the counties just don’t have the funds,” said Hocraffer.

King County’s Office of Public Defense funds legal services for people determined to be indigent, as well as other work performed by the county’s four public-defense firms. Hocraffer’s budget comes from King County’s general fund.

In nearly all death-penalty cases tried in Washington, the defendant has been determined to be indigent and has been assigned a publicly funded legal team.

Hocraffer said he never budgets for a death-penalty case, so at times he goes to the Metropolitan King County Council for supplemental funding.

Ellis said that capital-punishment defense work is growing in cost because “lawyers are spending more time to prepare.” He said that many jurors want to know everything about the defendant’s life and have become savvy when it comes to technology, forensics and evidence.

“There are investigative and expert costs; jurors want to know more about forensics and the human mind, what influences it and what causes a person to do certain things,” Ellis said. “Those are really expensive propositions.”

Since 2007, King County has applied annually for assistance under the state’s Extraordinary Criminal Justice Costs Act, which is administered by the state Office of Public Defense and is designed to help counties defray the costs of defending capital-murder cases. In 2008, the county received $286,000, said Hocraffer.

Satterberg said he has seen a sharp growth in defense costs in capital cases, including hiring expert witnesses, evidence research and investigations.

“There’s an industry that has cropped up around it. It just seems that there’s an acceptance that if it’s a capital case it’s going to take two additional years to get to trial. It leads me to the observation that the opponents of the death penalty are often in charge of running up the costs and delaying the cases,” Satterberg said.

While Satterberg has cut costs in his office through layoffs and by freezing positions, he says he will not back down from pursuing the death penalty in the most egregious cases.

Since the arrests and charges of Anderson and McEnroe in connection with the slayings of three generations of Anderson’s family in Carnation on Christmas Eve 2007, public defenders have spent about $1.7 million on defense costs for Anderson and about $1.5 million on the defense of McEnroe.

The former couple, who are each charged with six counts of aggravated murder, are expected to face a jury next year.

Since Monfort’s arrest Nov. 6, 2009, public defenders have spent more than $1.1 million preparing his case for trial. Monfort is charged with aggravated murder for allegedly killing Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton, and with attempted first-degree murder in the wounding of Officer Britt Sweeney on Oct. 31, 2009. A trial date has not been set.

Dan Donohoe, spokesman for Satterberg, said that the Prosecutor’s Office has spent more than $470,000 on the Carnation case and less than $200,000 on the Monfort case, figures that include salaries for prosecutors.

The prosecution’s expenses include hours logged by the senior deputy prosecutors trying the case, a paralegal and the cost of expert witnesses. It does not include costs incurred by police departments or the state crime lab.


Christopher Monfort


Accused of killing Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton and wounding a second officer on Oct. 31, 2009
Defense costs: $1.1.million so far
Prosecution costs: about $200,000

Michele Anderson and Joseph McEnroe


Accused of killing six of Anderson’s relatives Dec. 24, 2007
Defense costs: $1.7.million for Anderson; about $1.5.million for McEnroe
Prosecution costs: $470,000 total so far for both

Conner Schierman


Guilty: Killed four members of a Kirkland family in July 2006, sentenced to death last year
Total defense and prosecution costs: $2.4.million (does not include appeals)

These numbers are current as of August 2011.


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