Six people who killed as children in Pierce County might get relief from their life-without-parole sentences based on a Monday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles are unconstitutional, the nation’s highest court declared.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said imposing such penalties on children without taking into account mitigating factors including their susceptibility to peer pressure and negative parental influences violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
While juveniles might still be sentenced to life without parole, such sentences should be rare and not arrived at without considerable due process, the high court said.
“By removing youth from the balance – by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult – these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
The result for juvenile offenders imprisoned for life under mandatory sentencing laws, including those in Washington, remained to be seen.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said a quick and clean fix would be for the Legislature to amend sentencing laws to make the toughest sentence for a juvenile offender life with the possibility of parole and to make the new sentencing guidelines retroactive.
That would throw a decision regarding the possible release of a youthful offender convicted of the state’s highest crime – aggravated first-degree murder – into the hands of the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, Lindquist said. That board would be able to take into account an offender’s upbringing and maturity at the time of the crime in making a recommendation for parole, he said.
“There will be further analysis from all corners,” Lindquist said. “What we know at this point is that the Legislature must do something to address pending and future cases and in the process could address past cases.”
Lindquist said six people from Pierce County are subject to the ruling:
• Barry Massey and Michael Harris, who were 13 and 15 respectively when they stabbed, shot and robbed Steilacoom store owner Paul Wang in January 1987.
• John Phet and Marvin L. Leo, who were 16 and 17 respectively when they took part in the infamous Trang Dai massacre in Tacoma in 1998. Five people died when gang members opened fire inside a cafe.
• Nga Ngoeung, who was 17 in 1994 when he was arrested for his role in the murders of two Spanaway Lake High School students gunned down for throwing eggs at cars and houses.
• Ansel Hofstetter, who was 16 in 1991 when he killed an Orting store clerk during a robbery.
All later were convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The only other punishment for an aggravated murder conviction is the death penalty, which is rarely sought against juvenile offenders in Washington.
Massey and his supporters have challenged his conviction and sentence for years, including unsuccessful appeals to the state’s Clemency and Pardons board.
His attorney, Beth Colgan, told The News Tribune on Monday she’d not had a chance to review the ruling or analyze what it might mean for her client.
In 1991, Harris wrote a letter to a Pierce County court saying he believed his punishment had been too harsh.
“I know that if there is a chance for me to get out that it will not be anytime soon,” he wrote. “I feel that I should be punished for what has happened, but to say that I cannot become a better person and fit for society at the age of fifteen, I do not go along with.”
A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court – deciding separate cases from Alabama and Arkansas – seemed to agree, saying children who receive life without parole get more punishment than adults who receive the same sentence because they wind up spending disproportionately more time incarcerated for the same offense.
“Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other – the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” Kagan wrote for the majority. “And still worse, each juvenile (including these two 14-year-olds) will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses – but really a greater sentence than those adults will serve.”
Chief Justice John Roberts was among the dissenters, saying the court had unwisely usurped the power of state legislatures, whose job it is to determine crimes and punishments within their jurisdictions.
“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Roberts wrote. “But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole.”email@example.com