SEATTLE (AP) — A year after it said virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers, the Washington Supreme Court changed course on Thursday in a split ruling that sparked furious dissent from four judges.
The 5-4 decision was a striking departure for a court that has embraced steady research in recent years showing that youth brain development tends to make them less guilty than adults, and has made significant efforts to assess the impact of racial bias on criminals. to undo. legal system.
“The majority are rewriting our case law to severely limit the protections we have found in our state constitution to children,” Chief Justice Steven González wrote in his dissenting opinion.
The court upheld a 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson, a black man who was 17 when he shot two women during a 1994 drug robbery in Tukwila, killing one of them and blinding the other. the same house.
In 2018 — in line with a long-standing trend of federal and state criminal cases recognizing that children should be treated differently in the courts — Washington judges ruled it violated the state constitution to sentence 16- or 17-year-olds to life imprisonment without parole. release. That ruling came in the case of Brian Bassett, a white man who killed his parents and brother when he was 16.
Last September, the court went even further and imposed a 46-year prison term for Timothy Haag, a white man who was 17 when he drowned his 7-year-old neighbor in a bathtub.
The majority decision in that case — signed by six judges — stated that such a long sentence for a minor is essentially life imprisonment because it gives the defendant “a meaningful opportunity to re-engage in the society”. Therefore, according to the court, it is contrary to the constitution.
Thursday’s ruling dropped that precedent, saying instead that such virtual life sentences for minors are barred by the state constitution only if their crimes “reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity or failure to assess risks and consequences.”
Anderson’s was not such a case, Judge Debra Stephens wrote for the majority.
He was not immediately arrested for the shooting, but as a young adult committed other crimes, including assault and theft, and wrote letters to friends bragging about the shootings. It wasn’t until 1998, after someone tipped off investigators about the letters, that he was charged. He long failed to admit guilt or express remorse, Stephens noted.
Stephens disagreed with the majority in the Hague case last year, saying she did not believe a 46-year prison sentence was necessarily unconstitutional for a minor. She framed her opinion Thursday as a clarification of that statement.
The dissident judges disagreed, calling it a rewrite of the Hague’s clear ban on virtual life sentences for minors. It was nonsensical and disturbing that the court would find a 46-year sentence for a white 17-year-old an unconstitutional “de facto” life sentence while upholding a 61-year sentence for a black 17-year-old, they said.
“Bassett and Haag are both white. Anderson is black,” Judge Mary Yu wrote in her dissent. “Bassett and Haag were both recognized by this court as former juvenile delinquents capable of redemption and rehabilitation, and they were ordered to be sentenced accordingly. Anderson has been denied such recognition and conviction, in violation of the law and the evidence.”
Yu wrote that she did not accuse the majority of intentional discrimination, but added, “It would be willfully ignorant to conclude that race played no part in the dramatically inconsistent treatment of these three former juvenile offenders by our justice system.”
González pointed to irrefutable evidence of Anderson’s rehabilitation in prison, including his work as a machine operator in the license plate shop and other prison jobs, his good performance reviews, completing college courses, earning accounting and bookkeeping certifications, mentoring other offenders, and participate in many other training and treatment programs. That suggests he deserved another sentencing hearing, González wrote.
He also noted that the charges against Anderson were filed around the time of the “super-predator” myth of the 1990s — the debunked notion that some teens, primarily black and brown delinquents in the inner city, were irreparable and often involved played in long sentences given to minority offenders.
“It is disturbing that juvenile white offenders who have appeared before the Supreme Court received relief that Mr. Anderson, who is black, did not,” his attorney, Travis Stearns, said in an email.
The King County Attorney’s Office, which has opposed granting a new sentence to Anderson, urged the judges to reverse the decisions in Hague and Bassett, saying they were wrongly made. Anderson’s childhood played no significant role in his crimes, he argued.
Marsha Levick is the chief legal officer of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which has participated in juvenile justice cases before the Washington Supreme Court and filed a lawsuit in support of Anderson’s appeal.
“It’s surprising from a court that is so stable in assessing extreme convictions,” Levick said. “They have strayed from the path they had walked.”
Judges Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener joined Stephens in the majority. Owens and Whitener were also in the majority in the Hague case.
The dissenting judges were Yu, González, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.