Decision ‘profoundly’ limits sentencing
protections for underage offenders
A divided Washington State Supreme Court abandoned its own precedent, allowing virtual life imprisonment for a teenage killer.
The 5-4 decision reversed an earlier ruling that virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers. The 5-4 decision said such sentences are barred by the state Constitution only if their crimes “reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
In this decision, the state court upheld a 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson, a Black man who, when he was 17, shot two women during a drug robbery, killing one and blinding the other. According to The Associated Press, the decision departed from a trend in recent years where the court has slowly worked to reverse racial bias in the justice system, and gradually accepted evidence that juvenile brain development makes them less culpable than adult offenders.
“The majority rewrites our jurisprudence to profoundly limit the protection we have found our state Constitution gives to children,” Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in his dissent.
In 2018, the same court held that sentencing 16- or 17- year-olds to life in prison without parole violated the state Constitution. That case concerned Brian Bassett, a white 16-year-old who killed his parents and brother. Last September, the same court, in a 6-3 decision, also struck down a 46-year sentence for Timothy Haag, a white 17-year-old who drowned his 7-year-old neighbor in a bathtub. In that case, the court ruled that a 46-year sentence was in essence a life sentence as it would have left Haag without “a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.”
Justice Debra Stephens, writing for the Anderson majority, framed her opinion as a clarification of the Haag ruling, noting that Anderson had for a long time failed to admit guilt or express remorse.
However, the dissenting justices called it a rewriting of the Haag decision’s clear prohibition on virtual life sentences for juveniles, finding it “nonsensical” and “troubling” that the court would strike down a 46-year sentence for a white 17-year-old but uphold a 61- year sentence for a Black 17-year-old.
“Bassett and Haag are both white. Anderson is Black,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in her dissent. “Bassett and Haag were both recognized by this court as former juvenile offenders capable of redemption and rehabilitation, and they were ordered to be resentenced accordingly. Anderson has been denied any such recognition and resentencing, contrary to the law and the evidence.”
Yu also wrote that while she was not accusing the majority of intentional discrimination, to say that race has not played a role in the justice system would be “willfully oblivious.” Dissent also came from others in the legal and political community.
“It’s surprising from a court that has been so steady in its journey in assessing extreme sentencing. They have stepped away from the path that they had been on,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which has participated in juvenile justice cases before the Washington Supreme Court and filed a friend of the court brief supporting Anderson’s appeal.