Court bars life sentences without parole for some teens
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A split Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday barred the state from sentencing 16- and 17-year-old murder defendants to life in prison without the possibility of parole, saying the sentence violates the state Constitution’s ban on cruel punishment.
In response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Washington had already severely limited the conditions in which minors could be locked away for life.
Thursday’s 5-4 ruling went a step further and came in the case of Brian Bassett, who was convicted in 1996 of three counts of aggravated first-degree murder for shooting his parents and drowning his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub in their McCleary home when he was 16.
Bassett was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Authorities say he had assistance from a friend who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it was unconstitutional for juveniles to receive automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
In response to that ruling, the Washington Legislature eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles under 16 who are convicted of aggravated first-degree murder, instead allowing a minimum of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
It also required courts to consider mitigating factors — such as childhood experiences and the chance of being rehabilitated — before sentencing a 16- or 17-year-old convicted of aggravated first-degree murder to life in prison without parole or early release.
In 2015, Bassett had a resentencing hearing under the new state law and requested three concurrent 25-year sentences citing mitigating factors, including testimony by a psychologist that he suffered from an adjustment disorder that left hm struggling to cope effectively with the stress of homelessness and his strained relationship with his parents.
Bassett also noted that he had completed courses on stress and family violence. Letters from his supporters stated that he served as a mentor to other men in prison.
The judge rejected his request for the lower sentence and imposed three consecutive life terms without parole. Bassett took his case to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor last year.
Thursday’s ruling by the high court affirmed the appellate ruling and sends Bassett’s case back to the trial judge for resentencing in Grays Harbor Superior Court.
The state Supreme Court majority ruled that the lower court may not impose a minimum of life in prison “as it would result in a life without parole sentence.”
Bassett’s attorney, Eric Lindell, said the ruling was morally, legally and constitutionally correct.
“There’s, without question, significant physical differences between the brains of juveniles and the brains of adults,” Lindell said in explaining the need for the sentencing guidelines.
The high court, in a majority led by Justice Susan Owens, said even expert psychologists can have difficulty in determining if a person is irreparably corrupt and noted those decisions carry high stakes — whether someone lives out their life in prison or has an opportunity to return to society.
Allowing courts the discretion to make those decisions “produces the unacceptable risk that children undeserving of a life without parole sentence will receive one,” the majority wrote.
Four justices dissented, saying the legislative changes made after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling were constitutional.
Grays Harbor Prosecutor Katie Svoboda said she agreed with the dissenting opinion and the majority “got it wrong.”