The Washington State Court of Appeals has invalidated the 40-year prison sentence of a man convicted of killing an Orting woman during a convenience store robbery in 1991.
A three-judge panel said this week that Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson acted prematurely when she resentenced Ansel Hofstetter in 2013 after a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that ruled as unconstitutional mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
Hofstetter, now 40, received such a sentence in 1992 after being convicted at 16 of aggravated first-degree murder in the shooting death of 25-year-old Linda Miller, who left behind a 7-month-old daughter.
He petitioned for a new sentence after the Supreme Court ruling.
Nelson should have waited for the Legislature to amend Washington’s sentencing laws to conform with the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama before she resentenced Hofstetter, the appeals court decided.
Pierce County prosecutors had urged her to do just that, but Nelson forged ahead.
“Here, at the time of resentencing, the sentencing statute only gave the trial court authority to impose a life sentence,” the panel wrote. “Although Miller rendered that statute unconstitutional, the trial court had no statutory basis for imposing a different sentence.”
What’s more, Hofstetter’s new sentence now is inconsistent with other similarly situated people, who were resentenced under new state laws drafted in view of the Miller decision.
“Because the trial court had no statutory authority to impose Hofstetter’s new sentence, it is invalid and must be corrected,” the panel ruled.
The Miller decision said mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile killers violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because new research shows people’s brains don’t fully develop until they are into their 20s.
The Legislature amended the state’s sentencing statutes in 2014 to comport with that decision.
The new laws allow people who were 16 or 17 when they committed aggravated first-degree murder still to be sentenced to life without parole. But first a judge must hold a hearing to weigh factors that might mitigate against such a sentence, such as the defendant’s background.
If a judge decides life without parole is inappropriate, he or she must sentence the defendant to 25 years to life, with the end date determined by the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board.
That is the scheme under which Hofstetter must be resentenced following the appellate ruling.