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Sunday, December 30, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Death penalty rare for women

Seattle Times staff reporter

If precedent is an indication, prosecutors may face an additional challenge should they opt to seek the death penalty against Michele Kristen Anderson, 29, charged in the killing of six of her relatives near Carnation Christmas Eve:

No woman has been sentenced to die in Washington state. Of the 3,300 inmates on death row in the U.S. in the last complete count, only 49 were women — less than 1.5 percent.

"I think jurors, in general, would have a tougher time imposing the death penalty on a woman," said Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Chris Dickinson, who in 2003 unsuccessfully sought the death penalty against a woman convicted of hiring a group of teens to kill her boss.

But seldom are women accused of being directly involved in acts as violent as those that took place at the Anderson home near Carnation. Of the six people killed, court papers allege Anderson shot two — her brother, Scott Anderson, and his wife, Erica — and also shot at her father, Wayne Anderson.

Michele Anderson and her boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe, 29, also are charged with killing Michele's mother, Judy Anderson, along with Scott and Erica Anderson's children, Olivia, 5, and Nathan, 3.

Prosecutors will decide within 30 days whether to seek the death penalty against Anderson and McEnroe, each of whom was charged Friday with six counts of aggravated murder.

Both Anderson and McEnroe told detectives about the killings and said Anderson had disagreements with her parents and brother, court papers say.

Family disputes are the most common motive behind multiple killings, said criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston, who has studied mass murders for 25 years.

Fox said women commit about 10 percent of the killings in the United States, but only 5 percent of the multiple slayings.

He has not examined the Carnation case. But noting McEnroe's alleged involvement, Fox said enlisting an accomplice can "embolden" someone considering killing.

"Frequently people do things with the assistance of others they would never go through with on their own."

Fox chaired a panel that studied the Capitol Hill case, in which loner Kyle Huff killed six young people and then himself at a party in March 2006.

The use of guns in a killing is more common among men than women, Fox said. "Men have more guns; they are more comfortable with guns," he said. "Women prefer things like poison or fire, or even hiring someone else to do it."

Holiday tension

Family disagreements can boil over in deadly fashion around holidays, when relatives gather, Fox said. He said the nation's largest family mass murder involved the killing of 14 people in Arkansas at Christmas 1987, deaths for which Ronald Gene Simmons was executed in 1990.

In another mass killing at a holiday, an Ohio man, James Ruppert, erupted in a rage during an Easter 1975 family gathering, shooting 11 members of his family. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Since 1977, nearly 1,100 inmates have been executed in the U.S.; only 11 were women.

The most recent of those was Frances Elaine Newton, of Texas, executed by lethal injection in September 2005. Prosecutors said that to collect insurance money, she fatally shot her husband, 7-year-old son and 21-month-old daughter.

Washington state has executed 77 inmates — all men — since 1904. Officials Friday could find only two instances in more than a quarter-century in which Washington prosecutors even asked jurors to sentence a woman to death.

The most recent was the Snohomish County case, in which jurors deliberated about eight hours over two days before sentencing Barbara Opel to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors said she had persuaded five teens, including her 13-year-old daughter, to fatally beat Jerry Heimann of Everett.

Deputy Prosecutor Dickinson said jurors, in deciding Opel's fate, were allowed to consider her lack of a criminal record and whether, if given a life sentence, she would be a danger to other inmates or prison staff.

"I think they didn't feel she was a great danger," Dickinson said. About half of the jurors had favored sentencing Opel to die, but the death sentence requires a unanimous vote.

Life without parole

In the earlier case in Southeastern Washington, jurors gave a sentence of life in prison without parole to Susan Kroll, who hired two Idaho men to shoot her husband in Asotin County in 1989.

Dickinson said, in general, he expects it would be more difficult to get a death-penalty verdict against a woman, particularly one with children: "That's a big emotional card the defense can play." Michele Anderson does not have children.

In the Carnation case, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said Friday, the magnitude of the crimes will prompt him to give "serious consideration" to seeking the death penalty against both Anderson and McEnroe. A spokesman would not comment on whether Anderson's gender may play any role in the decision.

Death-penalty experts disagree over whether the small number of women sentenced to die in the U.S. indicates a bias favoring women.

In a 2001 interview, Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who tracks death-penalty cases against women, said, "It's like there's something more valuable about women's lives ... Women are also treated differently when they're victims."

But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said, "It could be a bias operating or it could just be there are so few cases of women committing crimes like this. It's a hard thing to prove one way or another."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com. Staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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