Punishment Capital

The state is spending millions to kill Christopher Monfort. But time itself may be his executioner.

Editors note: Two days after this story was published, a King County judge ruled that the state could not seek the death penalty against Christopher Monfort. Read our report here.

It's a sparkling afternoon in February. But Christopher Monfort, despite having spent more than three years in jail, is not bothering to look out the King County Courthouse windows. He stares vacantly at the floor, stiffly twists his long upper body to whisper to his attorney, and resumes his downward stare. Besides, what's to see outside? Sun glinting off police headquarters up the hill? Monfort's a hated man there. He's in court today for allegedly killing a police officer and attempting to kill two more. 

His occasional courtroom lectures about a war against police haven't won any cops' hearts either. In one of his first outbursts, in 2010, he told his guards and the audience, "You can't see us coming." His attorneys flinched. He seemed to be describing the ambush murder he is charged with: driving up to a parked police car on Halloween night 2009 in Leschi and firing an assault rifle at the two officers inside, killing one, before speeding off.

A lanky black man with a stern countenance and deep-set eyes, Monfort also told the courtroom in 2010 that "cops work for us"—words contained in one of the messages that prosecutors say Monfort left behind after setting fire to a police mobile command center, parked in a city maintenance yard, two weeks before the Leschi murder. In an apparent attempt to kill first responders, he allegedly booby-trapped the yard with a homemade bomb that failed to explode.

In another court harangue, addressed to the audience before the judge entered, Monfort described his cop-war battlefield injuries: "I'm speaking with a lisp right now," he said. "The side of my face is paralyzed, I can't walk, I'm dead from the waist down. Freedom is not free!" Just as he was asking the audience, "Can anybody here tell me the price of freedom?" the judge entered, and the bailiff cut him off with "All rise!"

All rose but Monfort. He sat immobilized in his hand-powered wheelchair, a police bullet still lodged near his spine. It was the price he was paying.

Or the down payment. As an accused cop-killer, he's facing the death penalty.

The more than $3 million of taxpayer money spent on the case is also just a down payment. A trial for aggravated murder and other charges won't be held for at least seven months, preceded by a crossfire of briefs and motions and a series of pretrial hearings, including one set for Friday, Feb. 22, in which Monfort's attorneys plan to argue the unconstitutionality of the death sentence. If he's convicted and sentenced to die, an automatic state Supreme Court review will follow, as will years of appeals.

Though his lawyers told prosecutors that Monfort would consider a plea deal in return for a sentence of life without parole, he has pleaded not guilty. His three court-appointed public defenders are focused primarily on saving their client from a lethal injection.

His attorneys contend that Monfort was insane at the time of the murder, unable to tell right from wrong—a claim that, should it fail to persuade the jury during trial, could be re-argued during the jury's death-penalty sentencing phase. It's also a claim likely to be dropped in exchange for a plea deal.

Monfort's mental state has been a concern. According to recently released jail documents, the accused killer attempted suicide in his cell last October 12. Details were partially censored, but he cut himself with a razor and was hospitalized. The jail, without announcing the suicide attempt, subsequently said it would provide him with a TV to break up the monotony of isolation.

Should Monfort be convicted and sent to death row, he won't necessarily die at the end of a needle, his attorneys say. "His life expectancy is substantially shorter than most 44-year-olds," says defense attorney Carl Luer in an interview. All things considered—Monfort's paralysis, pills, pain, infections, mental state, pressure sores, declining condition, and the bullet in his back—leave him "roughly 14 1/2 to 15 years of life," Luer estimates.

That's long enough, judging by the intricacies of a typical Washington state death-penalty case, to cost millions of taxpayer dollars. And Monfort is one of three accused murderers currently facing the death penalty in King County, a rare string of ongoing capital prosecutions that have already cost taxpayers more than $9 million without a single trial being held.

But his long and pricey prosecution could fall years short of producing the state's intended result. Monfort's failing health has become its own kind of slow-motion death penalty, his attorneys claim. If convicted, he likely won't live to attend his execution.

Christopher Monfort was taken into custody a week after the murder of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton. A 39-year-old married father of two, Brenton died instantly of a head wound and other injuries after the driver of an old baby-blue Datsun 210 pulled up next to his cruiser parked on 29th Avenue East. It was just after 10 p.m., October 31, 2009, when the shooter opened fire with a semi-automatic Kel-Tec .223-caliber rifle.

Rookie officer Britt Sweeney, 33, sitting next to Brenton, ducked in time and was only grazed on the back. She got out, radioing for help as she fired 10 shots at the fleeing car, hitting it at least once.

Without a license-plate number, police issued a general description of the suspect's car. Eventually, on a tip, officers tracked the vehicle to a Tukwila apartment complex on November 6, the day of Brenton's memorial in Seattle. Seattle Police Sgt. Gary Nelson ran into the Datsun's owner, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Monfort, on the outside stairs. From less than 8 feet away, Monfort allegedly pointed a gun at Nelson's face and pulled the trigger. With no shell in the chamber, Monfort's Glock 9 dry-fired. He ran off as Nelson ducked and called for backup.

Three police officers searched for Monfort, then saw him running on a fourth-floor landing. When they shouted for him to stop, he brandished his gun again. Six police shots were fired; two bullets struck Monfort, and he fell in a crippled heap. One bullet went through his cheek and out his neck, the other into his stomach, striking his spine. Critically wounded, he underwent surgery and spent more than a month in the hospital. He left manacled in a wheelchair for the downhill ride to the King County Jail.

Monfort is now housed on the seventh-floor medical unit in a solitary cell, where corrections officers often have to help him in and out of his wheelchair. He takes a "handful" of pills three times a day, his attorneys say, including anti-seizure and pain medicines.

As his special white jail garb signifies, the 44-year-old onetime truck driver, college student, and police-academy hopeful is classified by the jail as an "ultra-security risk." Though he can't walk, his feet are shackled during court sessions. So are his hands, secured in silver cuffs linked to a waist chain. He is escorted by three guards who are never more than a few feet away.

Prosecutors believe they have a winning case against Monfort, with hard DNA and ballistic evidence to link him to Brenton's "assassination," as police officials have called the shooting. Monfort's apartment looked like a small commando center, police say, where they found the assault rifle used to kill Brenton. The weapon was bought a week before the shooting at a Puyallup gun show, sold by arms dealer David Devenny, 70, of Olympia. Devenny is now in prison doing 18 months for a number of illegal gun sales. (Federal investigators were unable to determine whether he sold the assault weapon directly to Monfort or to someone else.)

According to veteran Seattle Police Det. Cloyd Steiger, ballistics tests show that the bullets that hit officer Brenton matched Monfort's weapon "to the exclusion of all other weapons in the world." DNA from a bandanna found at the murder scene, allegedly left as a calling card, matches DNA found in Monfort's apartment, Steiger says. Investigators also found a manifesto Monfort was writing about waging a war on police, and police brutality, which includes the line, "From this day forward, when Police Brutalize Citizens, Police will Die." Investigators would later say Monfort was obsessed with the case of Deputy Paul Schene, who in 2009 was caught on tape pummeling a 15-year-old girl in a King County holding cell.

Also in the apartment were a stack of car tires, a softball-sized homemade bomb, a handgun, a cannon fuse, a shotgun, two other rifles, hundreds of bullets and shells, and a police scanner. Pamphlets on the Constitution were spread along a kitchen countertop. The bed was neatly made with an American flag laid on top.

When the state proposes killing a killer, the legal microscope is focused excruciatingly closely. Each facet and angle of the criminal case is analyzed and debated, particularly by the defense seeking holes in the prosecution's case or laboring to throw out the death sentence. As the American Bar Association explains in its guidelines for members: "Because of the possibility that the client will be sentenced to death, counsel must be significantly more vigilant about litigating all potential issues at all levels in a capital case than in any other case." The client's life, the bar guidelines add, "may well depend on how zealously counsel discharges this duty."

In a sparsely attended hearing on February 1, with Monfort's mother sitting in the back of the room, the defense asked Superior Court Judge Ronald Kessler one of those be-vigilant-and-zealous questions: whether their client could have one hand free while he's in court.

It was another in the series of ongoing pretrial arguments, motions, and minutiae that come with such cases. Briefs run to extraordinary lengths (Monfort's legal challenge to the death penalty comprises 2,750 electronically filed pages), while investigative, evidentiary, and discovery reports and documents fill stacks of boxes and CDs. Thousands of court pages alone involve repeated skirmishes over what documents to seal and whether other documents should be open to the public before trial.

After corrections officers rolled Monfort up to the defense table in Judge Kessler's courtroom that afternoon, they stood by and watched the defendant's every move, especially the moments he picked up a pen with his cuffed hand to write.

At the hearing, his attorneys filed notice in open court that they will attempt to prove Monfort was insane when he allegedly killed officer Brenton. It was a strategic move and a signal of things to come at trial. But most of that day in the courtroom was spent debating, essentially, how big a flight risk the paraplegic Monfort was, and conversely, whether he should be enabled to write more comfortably during the hearings.

It was, in fact, the second time taxpayer-funded lawyers came together in Kessler's courtroom to argue those points.

In a December hearing, the judge approved the defense attorneys' request to allow Monfort to be unshackled in court. But a corrections officer watching over him said that couldn't be done: Orders require keeping the defendant in cuffs outside the jail.

Kessler told the guard he was in contempt of court if he didn't comply. The officer still refused. A recess followed. Then more debate. Finally Monfort attorney Todd Gruenhagen chose to drop the challenge, but later filed an appeal. The jail showed "a stunningly outrageous display of contempt" for the court's authority, he said in a brief. That riled deputy prosecutor Nancy Balin, who represents the jail. Despite his condition, Monfort was a courtroom threat, she insisted. Consider the possibility, for example, that Monfort may have followers, and his supporters "may be fomenting a rescue plan," she said in a response brief. A "large group could quickly form" and overcome security, allowing the partially unchained defendant in the wheelchair to make a roll for it.

Kessler heard further oral arguments on February 1. "The jail," the diminutive Balin told him, "does not want to be in the position of saying 'I told you so' " should a one-hand-free Monfort cause courtroom tumult or escape. Gruenhagen, gray-haired and easygoing, said it seemed a little farfetched that Monfort was a threat to "propel himself out of the chair" if his hand was freed. "You tip him out of his wheelchair and he's going nowhere."

These arguments—sometimes trivial, sometimes not—can stretch for decades in capital cases in Washington. Gruenhagen cites the example of former death-row inmate Darold Stenson, 59, of Clallam County. He was given the death penalty for the 1993 shooting deaths of his wife, Denise, and his business partner, Frank Hoerner. But on appeal the case was reversed last year by the state Supreme Court, which found that prosecutors had wrongly withheld evidence. Stenson is now back in the county jail, without bail, awaiting a new death-penalty trial that the county says will cost up to $1.4 million. It's a 20-year-old case that has already cost millions, notes Gruenhagen, "and they're starting at the beginning again."

Another man on death row has been working his appeals for 22 years for a crime dating back a quarter-century: Jonathan Lee Gentry was convicted in 1991 for the bludgeoning death of 12-year-old Cassie Holden on June 13, 1988, in Kitsap County. His latest appeal was rejected last August by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, but he continues to fight on in court.

Back in King County, after an hour of legal back-and-forth, the judge took a moment to mull Monfort's and Balin's arguments, then went down the issue point by point. Free the defendant's hand, he finally ruled. Free the other one too. Immediately, Balin had the guards remove Monfort's cuffs. Despite a drooping eye and the right-side facial paralysis, Monfort brightened noticeably as he picked up a pen.

He had won a small, if ironic, victory: His attorney had convinced the court Monfort would remain secure enough in court for the state to attempt to send him to his death.

The day before Christopher Monfort won the right to be partially unshackled in the courtroom, another judge ruled King County's prosecutor had used the wrong legal formula in deciding to seek the deaths of two people charged in a separate capital case. Joseph McEnroe, 34, and his former girlfriend Michelle Anderson, 34, face separate trials, each accused of the 2007 aggravated murders of six people—Anderson's parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew.

Allegedly, Anderson felt slighted by her family after her parents suggested she pay rent for her Carnation trailer home. She and McEnroe, prosecutors charge, then slaughtered the family: Wayne Anderson, 60, and his wife, Judith, 61; her brother, Scott, and his wife, Erica, both 32; and the pair's children, Olivia, 5, and Nathan, 3. Prosecutors say Anderson shot her father with a 9 mm handgun and McEnroe also shot him with a .357 handgun. He then shot Anderson's mother twice. After hiding the bodies in the backyard, the twosome lay in ambush for the rest of the family, killing them as they came in the door.

If convicted, Anderson would be the first woman ever sent to Washington's death row. She has pleaded not guilty, but her attorneys say she'd reconsider if the death penalty was struck. And for the moment, it effectively has been: Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell found that prosecutors wrongly factored in the strength of their evidence as part of the equation used to decide whether to seek the death penalty. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg should have considered mitigating circumstances rather than some evidence factors in arriving at his decision, the judge said of the complicated formula. Satterberg called the ruling flat wrong, and is seeking an expedited appeal to overturn it.

Should the Monfort and Carnation cases run their marathon death-penalty course, the taxpayer tab could easily top $12 million for all three, based on other similar cases. The three defendants have all been declared indigent, leaving the public to pay for their prosecution, defense, and appeals.

V. David Hocraffer of the King County Office of Public Defense says the pretrial, defense-only tab for the three cases already comes to $7.8 million. Though the county has tightened its belt during the recession, "We have to build a certain amount of death-penalty costs into our budget" to be prepared, Hocraffer says. If costs soar, he goes to the county council to ask for more.

The majority of defense costs are for attorneys. Other major expenses include staff investigators, materials, experts, and lab work.

Ethan Rogers of the King County Prosecutor's Office says prosecutors so far have spent $780,000 on the McEnroe and Anderson cases and $446,000 preparing to try Monfort. That brings the taxpayer cost—for both prosecuting and defending the trio accused of murdering or attempting to murder nine people—to $9 million and counting. But a sizable figure is missing from that total.

While the defense's numbers include the cost of investigators and lab work, the prosecution's does not. Police handle the prosecution's investigations. Seattle and King County officers put the Monfort and Carnation cases together, and continue to be involved as they progress. Their costs in those cases are not broken out by the prosecutor or the departments. Defense attorney Gruenhagen guesses that it's "in the millions, easily."

Death-penalty opponents and critics cite costs as a major reason to end such prosecutions. A 2012 study found that California, for example, has spent $4 billion on capital cases since 1978, and could save $5 billion over the next two decades just by commuting the sentences of its death-row population—the U.S.'s largest, at 724 inmates. In a comprehensive 2009 study, the Death Penalty Information Center called execution a "wasteful program with no clear benefits."

The most costly death-penalty case in Washington history is thought to be that of Green River killer Gary Ridgway, the murderer of at least 48 women. In just a short period—from his 2001 arrest to his 2003 sentence—the county and state paid $12 million for his prosecution and defense. In the end, the death penalty was dropped. He received life without parole in return for providing additional information on his murders.

Prosecutor Satterberg is forging ahead with the three current cases in part, he has said, out of respect for the victims and their families. The Brenton and Carnation murders are the kind of cases the penalty was reserved for, he told reporters, and cost shouldn't be the deciding factor. In 2008, he cited "the magnitude of these alleged crimes, the slaying of three generations of a family, and particularly the slaying of two young children" as factors deserving the death penalty in the Anderson/McEnroe prosecutions. In 2010, seeking the death penalty against Monfort, he likewise pointed to the crime's "magnitude," plus "the absence of significant mitigating factors."

Satterberg blames what he calls the "death-penalty industry " for the high costs. Most defense attorneys, he said in an interview on Q13 last year, "are ideologically opposed to the death penalty and want to prove how slow and how expensive it is." His spokesperson, Dan Donohoe, says Satterberg doesn't want to comment further.

David Sorenson and Colleen O'Connor, attorneys for Michelle Anderson, filed a 20-page motion to strike the death penalty against their client after hearing Satterberg's Q13 interview. They labeled it "outrageous government conduct." They lost in court but scored some points, saying the prosecutor's office had caused delays as well, and that not only were Satterberg's remarks conjecture, they could prejudice potential jurors. As a result, jurors "will be less likely to trust our motivations and give less weight to the evidence we present."

Monfort defender Gruenhagen says that it's "Mr. Satterberg who was elected to pursue, or not pursue, the death penalty. It's really the local prosecutor who makes the decision," knowing costs will be high, he says. Of Washington's 39 counties, only a few take on death-penalty prosecutions, Gruenhagen adds. A 2007 Washington State Bar report on capital punishment observes that, because most counties can't afford capital trials, "Such financial pressures could result in the uneven application of the death penalty across the state."

Since taking office after the death of his mentor Norm Maleng in 2007, Satterberg has sought the death penalty against four defendants—the three current, plus Conner Schierman, whom Maleng originally indicted. Schierman was convicted in 2010 for the 2006 stabbing murders of his Kirkland neighbors: Olga Milkin, 28; her sons Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3; and Milkin's sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24. Schierman's defense was that he had gone haywire. "I've been told by people I'm going to die, I'm going to hell, but I'm already there," he said after his sentence was handed down.

Jim Conroy, Schierman's attorney, told the jury that someone else might have killed the immigrant family who lived across the street from Schierman, and that his client somehow woke up among the bodies, having suffered an alcoholic blackout. Schierman then doused the victims with gas and set fire to the home, claiming he covered up the deaths because no one would believe he was innocent. But once jurors found Schierman guilty—persuaded by DNA evidence—they took little more than a day to agree on a death sentence. At a press conference afterward, Satterberg said the jury was simply reacting to the facts of "one of the worst crimes in the history of this county."

Schierman is now on death row in the state pen at Walla Walla—destined perhaps to join the 78 men executed in Washington since 1904, according to the state Department of Corrections. Sixty-six were white, seven black, two Asian, two Hispanic, and one Eskimo.

The death penalty has been abolished and reinstated in Washington twice over the past century. The current state law was approved in 1981, then amended over the next several years. Executions resumed in the 1990s. Since then, starting with the hanging of triple murderer Westley Allan Dodd in 1993 (he refused to appeal his conviction and chose to die), five have been executed, the most recent being Cal Coburn Brown in 2010.

Satterberg, along with Brown's father, brother, and sisters, was in the audience when Brown, 52, spoke his final words from the execution chamber, awaiting a lethal injection. Brown claimed it was wrong for him to die after he confessed to the 1991 of killing Holly Washa, 22, of Burien, whom he abducted, raped, and tortured before stabbing her repeatedly and slitting her throat, leaving her to bleed to death in the trunk of her car.

"I only killed one victim," Brown said, noting that Green River killer Ridgway killed four dozen women, yet plea-bargained a life sentence. "I cannot really see that there is true justice. Hopefully, sometime in the future that gets straightened out."

His was the first state execution using a one-drug injection—the anesthetic sodium thiopental—rather than the three-drug cocktail still used by other states, which death-penalty opponents say causes unnecessary suffering and pain. A corrections spokesperson said the Brown execution was carried out "humanely and was dignified." Satterberg told reporters that Brown's demise was "quick and painless."

Today, eight men are set to die by capital punishment in Washington. Monfort, Anderson, and McEnroe, if convicted, would push Washington's death-row waiting list into double digits.

Satterberg argues that if Washingtonians don't like the death penalty, they should lobby legislators to change the law. Not that they haven't tried. Legislation to end capital punishment is an annual rite in Olympia, and again, cost is the driving force behind the current effort. Reps. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines), and Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) have introduced House Bill 1504, "an act relating to reducing criminal-justice expenses by eliminating the death penalty in favor of life incarceration."

At last year's bill hearing, no one spoke in favor of the death penalty, which state Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn) called a shame. She proceeded to engage each anti-penalty speaker in such sharp debate that another legislator had to admonish her, asking, "Could the senator please limit her responses to questions?"

Retired professor and former Harborview Medical Center social-work director Karil Klingbeil, whose sister was murdered in 1981, said she once favored the penalty, but now opposes it. The reason no one was speaking for capital punishment, she told Roach, was simply because "people are not in favor of it anymore." The penalty is an unnecessary financial and emotional burden on society, she said, and itself deserves death. Instead, the proposal died in committee.

The Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says it sees signs that public support is growing for ending the death penalty in the state—just as it has in Oregon, which in 2011 announced a moratorium on executions. Elsewhere, fewer cases are being brought: U.S. death sentences dropped from 224 in 2000 to 112 in 2010, one study found.

The three legislators behind the newest anti-penalty bill argue that executions are "below us as a civilized society." While capital punishment is also a financial drain on government, they said in a statement that "We believe the death penalty is immoral, unfairly implemented, and appeals to society's most violent instincts rather than love and compassion."

That may indeed be true. The base motive for legalized murder by the state, some argue, is revenge. Many consider that justice, and are unlikely to find love and compassion for an accused cop-killer such as Christopher Monfort. But that hasn't slowed his attorneys.

Carl Luer says the defense will eventually spell out its argument for the claim that Monfort was insane at the time of his alleged murder and arson rampage. Attorneys also plan to present mitigating factors, such as his mental state, to prevent his execution. In an interview, Luer, co-counsel Gruenhagen, and the third team attorney, Stacy MacDonald—all from the public-defender law firm Associated Counsel for the Accused—say Monfort had a troubled start in life. He was born to a white woman and a black father, and grew up in a rural Indiana town where the Klan had once marched.

"He was the only minority in any of his school classes," said Luer. "He was bullied and beat up in school."

His parents divorced when he was young, and Monfort's mother, Suzan Monfort, remarried and moved to Alaska. She was living there at the time of the Leschi murder, and has since moved to Washington. She visits her son three times a week in jail, the attorneys say. She does not want to comment on his alleged crimes. But shortly after the shooting, she issued a statement about Monfort, her only child.

He finished the sixth grade in Indiana, she said, went to school in Alaska, and attended high school in Denver where Suzan Monfort lived after her second divorce. "As a little boy," the mother recalled, "it was Scouts, baseball, football, playing outside with friends at any chance. He loved putting model cars and airplanes together. He developed a major interest in airplanes and collected books on them, and later learned to sky-dive, and as an adult learned to love scuba diving [and] motorcycling, and he loved to travel.

"While in community college, he began to paint, and loved to paint to music, and won a prize for one of his paintings at the school. He also is a lover of music—all genres—and taught himself guitar, and would often give gifts of music to friends and family."

When he was 21, Monfort applied to become a police officer in California, where his father lives, she said. He eventually moved to Seattle, attended Highline Community College, and was accepted at the University of Washington. "It was there he began to think about law school," Suzan Monfort said, "but it became clear to him while counseling juvenile offenders as a class requirement that his talents lie more in teaching civil liberties—ways to keep young men from getting deeper into [the] criminal system. [He] wanted to be able to give them hope and not to give up."

Some news reports describe Monfort as a loner with a temper. The Seattle Times reported he was radically opposed to the war in Iraq while a student at Highline, before enrolling at the UW in 2006. He obtained a bachelor's degree in 2008, and was a truck driver until several months before his arrest.

Up to that point, he had a sparkling-clean criminal record. His attorneys say he was concerned, if not obsessed, over the issue of police brutality—a theory prosecutors also put forth. He was particularly focused on the police beating of 15-year-old Malika Calhoun.

A note he is alleged to have left at the booby-trapped maintenance yard on October 22, 2009—the 14th annual Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, observed by the October 22nd Coalition—states, "These deaths [presumably from the bomb that didn't go off] are dedicated to [county] Deputy Travis Bruner, he stood by and did nothing, as Deputy Paul Schene Brutally beat and [sic] unarmed 14-year-old girl in their care."

Schene was fired by the King County Sheriff's Department after he kicked and punched Calhoun, who threw a shoe at him while she was being booked in SeaTac in early 2009. Caught on videotape, he was tried twice for the assault, but jurors deadlocked both times.

Was that the tipping point for Christopher Monfort? And do his attorneys plan to factor that into an insanity defense, and as mitigation should he be found guilty and face jurors again in a penalty phase? At that point, his fate will be either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"That's a big question in this case," says Luer. "But it's not one we're willing to answer just yet." After all, time is on their side.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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