SEATTLE (AP) — A year after calling virtual life sentences for juvenile killers unconstitutional, the Washington Supreme Court changed course on Thursday in a divided decision that attracted raging dissent from four judges.
5-4 Decisions It was a significant departure for a court that in recent years has consistently adopted research showing that the brain development of adolescents generally makes them less guilty than adults, and which has shown the effects of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Significant effort has been made to undo it.
Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in his dissent, “the majority rewrite our jurisprudence to deeply limit the protections granted to children by our state’s constitution.”
The court upheld a 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson, who was 17 years old when he shot two women, one of them murdered and the other, during a drug robbery in Tukwila in 1994. was blinded. A accomplice shot and killed a man. same house.
In 2018 — in line with a longstanding trend of federal and state criminal cases holding that children should be treated differently by courts — Washington judges considered it violated the state’s constitution for 16- or 17-year-olds. Years of children were sentenced to life imprisonment without jail. Parole The decision came in the case of Brian Bassett, a white man who murdered his parents and brother when he was 16.
Last September, the court proceeded, commutation of sentence of 46 years For Timothy Haag, a white man who was 17 when he drowned his 7-year-old neighbor in the bathtub.
A majority decision in that case – signed by six judges – held that such a long sentence for a juvenile is essentially a life sentence because it gives the defendant “a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison”. leaves without. Therefore, the court said, it was unconstitutional.
Thursday’s decision skips that precedent, saying instead that such virtual life sentences for juveniles are prohibited by the state constitution if their offenses are “of youthful immaturity, exuberance, or of the risks and consequences of reflect a failure to appreciate.”
Such was not the case for Anderson, Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the majority.
He was not immediately arrested for the shooting, but went on to commit other crimes as a young adult, including assault and robbery, and he wrote letters to girlfriends bragging about the shooting. It wasn’t until 1998, when someone reported on letters to investigators, that he was charged. Stephens said he failed to admit guilt or express remorse for a long time.
Stephens disagreed with the majority in Haag’s case last year, saying he doesn’t think the 46-year sentence for a juvenile is unconstitutional. She framed her opinion on Thursday as an explanation for that decision.
The dissenting judges disagreed, calling it a rewrite of Haag’s ruling’s explicit prohibition on virtual life sentences for juveniles. It was absurd and disturbing that the court would find a 46-year sentence for a 17-year-old white man an unconstitutional “real” life sentence, while upholding the 61-year sentence for a black 17-year-old man, he said. Told.
“Both Bassett and Haag are white. Anderson is black,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in her dissent. “Both Bassett and Haag were recognized by this court as former juvenile offenders capable of redemption and rehabilitation, and were accordingly offended. was ordered to be. Anderson denies any such belief and opposition contrary to the law and the evidence.”
Yu wrote that she was not accusing the majority of intentional discrimination, but added: “It would be deliberately oblivious to conclude that race played no role in the dramatically inconsistent treatment given to these three former juvenile offenders by our court system.” has played.”
Gonzalez points to indisputable evidence of Anderson’s rehabilitation in prison, including his work as a machine operator in a license plate shop and other prison jobs, his good performance rating, completing college courses, bookkeeping and obtaining accounting certificates. Doing, teaching and getting involved with other criminals. Many other training and treatment programs. This shows that he deserved a new sentencing hearing, Gonzalez wrote.
He also notes that the charges against Anderson were brought around the time of the “super-predator” myth of the 1990s—rejecting the notion that some teenagers, primarily inner-city blacks and browns, were The perpetrators of this were irreversible, and that often played a part. Minority criminals are being given long sentences.
His lawyer, Travis Stearns, said in an email, “It is disturbing that young white offenders appearing before the Supreme Court were relieved, who is Black, that Mr. Anderson did not.”
The King County Prosecutor’s Office, which opposed a new sentencing to Anderson, urged judges to overturn Haag and Bassett’s decisions, saying they were wrongly decided. It was argued that Anderson’s youth did not play a significant role in his crimes.
Marsha Levick is the chief legal officer of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which has participated in juvenile-justice cases before the Washington Supreme Court and filed a friend-of-court brief supporting Anderson’s appeal.
“It’s amazing from a court that has been so steady in its journey in assessing extreme punishment,” Levick said. “They have gone off the path they used to walk.”
Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener joined Stephens in the majority. Owens and Whitner were also in the majority in the Haag case.
The dissenting judges were Yu, Gonzalez, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.