SEATTLE -- The Washington Supreme Court has declined to reconsider an opinion that upheld a Black man's virtual life sentence for shootings he committed at age 17, despite criticism that the ruling betrayed racial bias.
The court upheld the 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson in September, abandoning a precedent issued just a year earlier in which it said — in the case of a white defendant — that such long terms for juvenile killers were unconstitutional because it left them no chance of a meaningful life outside prison.
Anderson's attorney, Travis Stearns of the Washington Appellate Project, sought reconsideration of the 5-4 ruling, writing that it reflected racial bias. Three civil rights organizations — the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law; the Juvenile Law Center, based in Philadelphia; and Huy, which supports Indigenous inmates in the Pacific Northwest — also urged the court to reconsider.
But such motions are legal long shots, and the court denied it Monday without explanation. The King County prosecutors had also opposed it, saying Anderson's criminal history and belated acceptance of responsibility helped distinguish his case.
Anderson, now 45, shot two women, killing one and blinding the other, during a drug robbery in Tukwila in 1994. An accomplice also shot and killed a man at the same home.
Anderson was not immediately arrested and went on to commit other crimes as a young adult, including assault and robbery, and he wrote letters to girlfriends bragging about the shootings. It wasn’t until 1998, after investigators learned of the letters, that he was charged.
He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2000 and sentenced to 61 years. He was granted a new sentencing hearing in 2018, following federal and state rulings that children must be treated differently by the justice system. But the judge gave him the same term, finding Anderson had not shown the shootings reflected “transient immaturity.”
In recent years, the Washington Supreme Court has further restricted sentences that can be imposed on children.
In 2018, the justices held that it violated the state Constitution to sentence 16- or 17-year-olds to life in prison without parole. That ruling came in the case of Brian Bassett, a white man who killed his parents and brother when he was 16. Bassett has since been resentenced to 28 years.
In September, the court struck down a 46-year sentence for Timothy Haag, a white man who was 17 when he drowned his 7-year-old neighbor. In that case, a six-justice majority held that juvenile murder defendants must be given “a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.”
Bassett and Haag were both quickly caught and prosecuted.
In Anderson's appeal, Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the 5-4 majority that such virtual life sentences for juveniles are barred by the state Constitution only if their crimes “reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
Anderson’s was not such a case, Stephens said.
The dissenting justices said it was nonsensical that the court would find a 46-year sentence for a white 17-year-old to be an unconstitutional “de facto” life sentence, while upholding a 61-year sentence for a Black 17-year-old. Justice Mary Yu wrote it would be “willfully oblivious” to conclude race played no role.
The King County Prosecutor's Office said the high court's decision maintained the discretion of trial judges to weigh the facts of each case and apply an appropriate sentence.