SEATTLE -- One year after saying virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers, the Washington Supreme Court changed course Thursday in a split ruling that drew irate dissents from four justices.
The 5-4 decision was a striking departure for a court that in recent years has steadily embraced research showing that juveniles' brain development typically makes them less culpable than adults, and which has made significant efforts to undo the impact of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
“The majority rewrites our jurisprudence to profoundly limit the protection we have found our state constitution gives to children,” Chief Justice Steven González wrote in his dissent.
The court upheld a 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson, a Black man who was 17 when he shot two women, killing one of them and blinding the other, during a drug robbery in Tukwila in 1994. An accomplice shot and killed a man in the same home.
In 2018 — in line with a long trend of federal and state criminal cases recognizing that children must be treated differently by the courts — Washington's 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.
Last September, the court went further, striking down a 46-year sentence for Timothy Haag, a white man who was 17 when he drowned his 7-year-old neighbor in a bathtub.
The majority decision in that case — signed by six justices — held that such a long sentence for a juvenile is essentially a life sentence because it leaves the defendant without “a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.” Therefore, the court said, it was unconstitutional.
Thursday's ruling abandoned that precedent, saying instead 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, Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the majority.
He was not immediately arrested for the shootings, but 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 someone tipped off investigators about the letters, that he was charged. He long failed to admit guilt or express remorse, Stephens noted.
Stephens dissented from the majority in Haag's case last year, saying she did not believe a 46-year sentence was necessarily unconstitutional for a juvenile. She framed her opinion Thursday as a clarification of that ruling.
The dissenting justices disagreed, calling it a rewriting of the Haag decision's clear prohibition on virtual life sentences for juveniles. It was nonsensical and troubling 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, they said.
“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 wrote that she was not accusing the majority of intentional discrimination, but she added: “It would be willfully oblivious to conclude that race has played no role in the dramatically inconsistent treatment given to these three former juvenile offenders by our court system.”
González pointed out unrebutted evidence of Anderson's rehabilitation in prison, including his work as a machine operator in the license plate shop and other prison jobs, his good performance ratings, completing college courses, obtaining bookkeeping and accounting certifications, tutoring other offenders, and engaging in many other training and treatment programs. That suggests he deserved a new sentencing hearing, González wrote.
He also noted that the charges against Anderson were brought around the time of the “super-predator” myth of the 1990s — the debunked notion that some teens, mainly inner-city Black and brown offenders, were irredeemable, and which frequently played a role in lengthy sentences being given to minority offenders.
“It is disturbing that youthful white offenders who have appeared before the Supreme Court received relief that Mr. Anderson, who is Black, did not," his attorney, Travis Stearns, said in an email.
The King County Prosecutor's Office, which opposed granting Anderson a new sentence, urged the justices to overturn the decisions in Haag and Bassett, saying they were incorrectly decided. Anderson's youth did not play a significant role in his crimes, it argued.
Marsha Levick is the 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.
“It's surprising from a court that has been so steady in its journey in assessing extreme sentencing,” Levick said. “They have stepped away from the path that they had been on.”
Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener joined Stephens in the majority. Owens and Whitener were in the majority in the Haag case as well.
The dissenting justices were Yu, González, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.