Two men who took part in what is thought to be the first killing of the gang wars that roiled Tacoma in the late 1980s and early 1990s learned their fates Friday.
Anthony Eugene Ralls and Nathaniel Miles each were sentenced to 27 years, nine months in prison, for the Aug. 28, 1988, death of Bernard Houston.
Based on their criminal histories, that was the high end of the sentencing range for Ralls and in the middle of the range for Miles. A jury convicted them earlier this month of first-degree murder.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Bernadine Sanders, Houston’s twin sister, told Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff prior to sentencing.
Another co-defendant, Terris Miller, on Friday received a sentence of credit for time served of just more than 400 days after he made a deal with Pierce County prosecutors in exchange for his testimony. Two other men remain to be sentenced. A sixth man thought to have taken part in the shooting has died.
Houston, 17, was gunned down and another teen injured on a Sunday night near South 23rd Street and South Sheridan Avenue in the Hilltop neighborhood. The crime went uncharged until last year when detectives and prosecutors determined they’d gathered enough evidence to bring it to court.
Deputy prosecutors Greg Greer and Jesse Williams argued at trial that Ralls, Miles and four other men patrolled the Hilltop in two cars that night looking for two men they believed were responsible for a series of drive-by shooting on the city’s East Side earlier that day. They opened fire on Houston and his friend after finding the teenagers in a parked Jeep Cherokee that resembled a vehicle used in the earlier drive-by shootings, the prosecutors argued. Houston, who was armed, fired a single shot in response but died after being hit in the head, they said.
Defense attorneys Barbara Corey and Sunni Ko argued that Houston was a gangbanger who fired the first shot that night and that their clients were acting in self-defense when they returned fire. Corey and Ko made those arguments again Friday in asking for a new trial, but Chushcof said no.
Williams then requested high-end sentences for both men, calling Houston’s death the result of an ambush. Ralls, Miles and their co-defendants weren’t event sure Houston was the one responsible for the prior drive-by shootings, he said.
Sanders then addressed the judge.
She said her brother was a sweet, charming boy who loved nothing better than making people laugh.
“Twenty-six years ago choices were made, and those choices were carried out, and those choices took my brother away from me,” said Sanders, who broke down crying during her testimony. “They walked away like he didn’t matter. But he did matter. He did matter.”
Corey and Ko argued for low-end sentences.
“What happened was regrettable,” Corey said. “Mr. Ralls strongly believes in the sanctity of life.”
Her client is married with a son who is considering a career in law enforcement, she said. Sending him to prison for as long as possible would be an injustice, Corey said.
Ko told Chushcoff that Miles was destined for a college education paid for with a football scholarship when he found himself basically orphaned and responsible for his 9-year-old stepbrother as a teenager. He made bad choices as a young man, but since has turned his life around, finding a steady relationship and starting a successful tree-trimming business, Ko said.
Ralls and Miles then apologized to Houston’s relatives for their loss.
Chushcoff had the last word. He called Houston’s death “tragic and painful.”
“It was about turf. It was about ego of teenagers,” the judge said.
Ralls deserved a high-end sentence because he most likely was the one who shot Houston and had been “pretty cold” throughout trial, Chushcoff said.
The judge did find something positive in the case: The fact that police and prosecutors pursued it for decades to get justice for a young man whose death might have been forgotten in other cities.
“One of things this prosecution does do, I think, is it does say to this community that it is trying, that it does care,” Chushcoff said.