Prison until death is cruel, unusual for 13-year-old

The News TribuneJune 5, 2014 

Barry Massey, 13, is led from Pierce County Superior Court in February 1987. At left is Massey’s mother.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 1987

The case of Barry Massey — the notorious 13-year-old killer — gets right down to the bedrock concerns of justice. It’s all about the border between retribution and redemption.

This week, Massey will probably be free of the life-without-parole sentence he received in 1988 for the vicious murder of a Steilacoom marina owner the previous year.

At the behest of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington Legislature, a Pierce County judge is expected to replace that abandon-all-hope fate with 25-years-to-life.

Massey has already served more than 27 years, and he could theoretically be released soon. That decision will be up to the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, a body known as the parole board back when sentences with fuzzy expiration dates used to be common. Massey would presumably be subject to community supervision once released and could be thrown back in prison if he violates the terms of parole.

His murder of Paul Wang in 1987 shocked Steilacoom and Pierce County. He and a 15-year-old accomplice, Michael Harris, summarily shot and stabbed Wang to death in his shop to grab candy, fishing gear and something over $140. Wang, who loved children, was murdered for the sake of petty items and petty cash.

Massey’s penalty has been an issue ever since. When he was sentenced at age 14, he became the youngest killer in the United States to be sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Aggravated murder was the obvious crime. Then-Prosecutor John Ladenburg was right to prosecute him as an adult for that, and Massey deserved a very long sentence. At the time, an aggravated murder conviction required either the death penalty or imprisonment until death. One or the other — it was automatic.

But the U.S. Supreme Court was also right in 2012 when it held that states couldn’t require judges to sentence juvenile killers to inflexible life sentences without any consideration of their age or circumstances.

In recent years, research has demonstrated that young juveniles — especially boys — are often slow to develop adult impulse control, moral judgment and the capacity to foresee the consequences of their actions. This isn’t bleeding-heart social theory. Scientists have pinpointed the precise brain structures linked with decision-making and documented their development –or lack thereof — during adolescence.

Justice requires punishment — long and hard punishment for a crime like Massey’s. Still, automatically flushing a defendant down the toilet for a murder committed at 13 is both cruel and unusual.

Massey might still belong in prison for many years to come. But that judgment ought to be made carefully, by human beings who’ve studied the particulars of his case and gained a sense of who he is now. One-size-fits-all isn’t justice for adolescents barely old enough to shave.

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