By Sara Jean Green
A divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday held that a life sentence for juveniles convicted of aggravated murder constitutes cruel punishment and is unconstitutional.
The justices ruled 5-4 that trial courts may not impose a minimum term of life without the possibility of release for 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of aggravated first-degree murder, with Justice Susan Owens writing in the majority opinion that "the direction of change in this country is unmistakably and steadily moving toward abandoning the practice of putting child offenders in prison for their entire lives."
But the minority opinion, authored by Justice Debra Stephens, argued the majority is reinterpreting a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision addressing mandatory juvenile life sentences, Miller vs. Alabama -- known as the Miller decision -- and that the majority has improperly eliminated trial judges' discretion to sentencing 16- and 17-year-olds to life in prison for the crime of aggravated murder.
Before the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty last week, finding capital punishment to be imposed in an arbitrary and racially-biased manner, the only possible punishments for adults convicted of aggravated murder was life in prison without the possibility of release, or death.
Thursday's ruling upheld a state Court of Appeals decision in the case of Brian Bassett, who was 16 when he fatally shot his parents with a stolen rifle and drowned his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub at the family's home in McCleary, Grays Harbor County, in 1995.
The appeals court last year agreed with Bassett, now 39, that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for juvenile defendants is unconstitutional because it violates the state's prohibition against cruel punishment. Prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court.
"It's an excellent decision. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences people to life for something they did as a child," said Bassett's attorney, Eric Lindell. "It's very consistent with our state constitution and the science that's developed and proved the minds of juveniles are different from the minds of adults."
But Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda said she was "frustrated" by the decision.
"When someone commits a triple homicide like Bassett did, that wasn't a youthful impulse kind of crime, like a drug deal gone bad or a robbery gone bad," she said. "It was a premeditated triple homicide crime, including a 5-year-old child who was drowned in a bathtub. I think the facts of the case matter and the victims matter."
According to the state Department of Corrections, there are 30 inmates in Washington who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of release for killings committed when they were 17 or younger and two of them -- including Bassett -- were resentenced to life without parole.
In King County, there is one case that will be impacted by Thursday's decision, according to the prosecutor's office. Alex Baranyi was 17 in January 1997 when he and his best friend, 18-year-old David Anderson, killed four members of a Bellevue family. Both were convicted of four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and sentenced to four consecutive life terms.
"A sentence of life without the possibility of parole will no longer be possible in that case," a spokesman for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in an emailed statement about Baranyi. "We are closely reading the opinion to determine what sentence is allowed under the Supreme Court's decision."
With Thursday's decision, Washington now joins 20 other states and Washington, D.C., in abolishing life without parole for juvenile offenders -- and is representative of the ongoing evolution in the way the criminal-justice system treats juveniles who are convicted as adults.
The shift is based on neuroscience that's proven adolescent brains aren't fully developed until age 25 -- and as a result, juveniles are considered less culpable than adults for criminal behavior. Science also has shown that adolescents possess a greater propensity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults.
The neuroscience prompted a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional to execute defendants who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18. Then, in 2010, the high court ruled juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes other than murder.
Two years after that, the Miller decision eliminated mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of release for juvenile homicide offenders but didn't categorically bar such sentences.
Instead, Miller found that juveniles are not as criminally culpable as adults and have a greater capacity to change, so required judges to consider as mitigating factors youth and its attendant characteristics, such as impulsivity, failure to appreciate risks or consequences and susceptibility to familial or peer pressure.
In 2015, the state Legislature passed what is known as the Miller fix, to bring state law into line with the Miller decision. The statute already bars minimum life sentences for juveniles who commit aggravated murder when they are 15 or younger, requiring them to serve a minimum of 25 years with a maximum term of life.
But before Thursday's ruling, judges still could sentence 16- and 17-year-old to life terms for aggravated murder after considering age and other mitigating factors.
Bassett was resentenced to life in prison in 2015, which prompted his appeal to the Court of Appeals.
According to Thursday's ruling, a pediatric psychologist testified that Bassett had suffered from an adjustment disorder and struggled to cope with homelessness after his parents kicked him out of the house. Bassett later said that at the time, he wasn't able to comprehend the long-term consequences of his actions, according to court records.
He hasn't had any prison violations for 15 years, has earned his GED and was on the Edmonds Community College honor roll. He got married in 2010.
"Brian, now under this opinion, has a chance to get released some day in the future. He went to prison as a 16-year-old boy with no hope of getting out, no light at the end of the tunnel and what he's done over the last 20 years is extraordinary," said Lindell, Bassett's attorney.
He expects Bassett to go before a Grays Harbor County Superior Court judge to again be resentenced but doesn't know when that might happen.
"All I want is for Brian to get a fair shake," Lindell said.
Times reporters Paige Cornwell and Hannah Rodriguez contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.
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