Marvin Leo has spent about half his life behind bars.
Monday, the 35-year-old learned he might one day be released.
Leo was 17 when he and other gunmen went to Tacoma’s Trang Dai Cafe and fired indiscriminately inside in an attempt to kill a patron.
In what remains one of Pierce County’s worst mass shootings, five people died, and five others were wounded July 5, 1998, in the 3800 block of South Yakima Avenue.
Leo was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole in 2000. He was back in court to have that re-evaluated, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that such sentences for youths are unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Katherine Stolz re-sentenced Leo to 40 years to life, which means he could go before the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board in 2038 to be evaluated for potential release.
“We know now that the adolescent brain is not the same as that of an adult,” Stolz said. “I do think he should have the chance to get out at some point in his life.”
She found it significant, she said, that the state Department of Corrections considered Leo a low risk to re-offend.
The Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama said mandatory sentences of life-without parole for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment, because the brains of adolescents are still developing.
The state’s response in 2014 was to change Washington law, to allow such inmates to be re-sentenced, with hearings that take their youth into account.
If a judge at re-sentencing finds life without parole isn’t appropriate for someone who was 16 or 17 at the time of their crime, the minimum sentence that judge can give is 25 years to life, with the state review board determining the end date.
A key point in Stolz’s decision was whether Leo would serve sentences for his five convictions for aggravated first-degree murder, to which he pleaded guilty, concurrently or consecutively.
Earlier this year, Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh sentenced co-defendant John Phet to five consecutive 25-year terms. That meant Phet wouldn’t live long enough to go before the review board to be evaluated for release. Phet has appealed the decision.
In arguing against consecutive sentences for Leo, defense attorney Mark Quigley said “that is a de facto life sentence,” and would violate the Supreme Court’s decision.
He asked that Leo be allowed to go before the review board after 30 years.
Deputy prosecutor Jim Schacht argued the Miller case dealt with a conviction for one murder, not five.
The Trang Dai shooting killed 21-year-old Tuyen Vo, 26-year-old Nhan Ai Nguyen, 33-year-old Tuong Hung Do, and brothers Hai Le, 27, and Duy Le, 25.
A concurrent sentence, Schacht said, would deny justice for four of the victims. Instead, he said, Leo should be sentenced the same as Phet, and suggested Leo could petition the governor for clemency.
When it was Leo’s turn to address the court Monday, he asked for a chance to prove he has changed.
“Apologies can’t even begin to express my remorse,” he said. “I was an irresponsible kid.”
Outside court, his father, Lealofi Leo, said he had hoped his son would get 30 years or less. He said his son is a good man, and that he hopes father and son get the chance to build a relationship outside of prison.
Marvin Leo has gotten his GED while incarcerated, taken part in therapeutic classes and exhibited good behavior in prison, his attorney told the court.
“He wants a chance at redemption,” Quigley said.
In 2038, he might get one.