Sara Jean Green/The Seattle Times (TNS)
The state Supreme Court has upheld a man’s 61-year prison sentence for his role in a double murder as a teenager, prompting dissenting justices to fear the ruling is a step backwards in the evolving field of law that generally considers young people less culpable. for crimes than adults.
The 5-4 ruling that will keep Tonelli Anderson, who is black, in jail includes dissenting opinions from Chief Justice Steven González and Judge Mary Yu, who pointed to the justice system’s historically unequal treatment of black Americans and others people of color. She also noted recent Supreme Court decisions awarding reparations to two white men who also killed when they were minors.
Four of the five justices who endorsed the majority opinion upholding a King County Superior Court judge‘s finding that Anderson’s 1994 crimes in Tukwila did not reflect the characteristics of a young brain are white. Three of the four dissenting justices are people of color.
Travis Stearns, a Washington Appellate Project attorney who represented Anderson, who was six months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the killings, also sees Thursday’s decision as a step backwards in denying his client a chance for release while he is alive.
Now 45, Anderson will be over 80 when he becomes eligible for release – if he lives that long, given that the life expectancy of those incarcerated is shorter than that of the general population. .
“Mr. Anderson spent his time in prison making up for his mistakes,” Stearns said in an email. “After decades of living crime-free, he should be given the opportunity to show that his rehabilitation is genuine and have his sentence reviewed. Unlike almost every other young person in Washington who has committed serious crimes, he will never have that chance. .”
Stearns said it was “disturbing” that the Supreme Court had awarded white men who killed as teenagers relief that Anderson had not been given, saying the majority decision “runs contrary to both to long-established principles of law and to newly recognized principles of justice”.
“To reduce racial injustice in the criminal justice system, judges must consider racial discrimination in their decisions,” Stearns said.
Drug theft turns deadly
Anderson agreed in September 1994 to support his friend Porshay Austin in a plan to steal cocaine from 25-year-old James Bateman and kill him and all witnesses at Bateman’s home in Tukwila, according to the facts of the case included in Thursday’s ruling.
Austin shot and killed Bateman after Bateman’s girlfriend, Lynell Ricardos, provided a quarter of a kilogram of cocaine, according to the ruling. Anderson shot Ricardos and another woman in front of Ricardos’ 2-year-old son, according to the decision.
The other woman, Kristin McMullen, of Seattle, died. Ricardos was seriously injured.
Anderson was not immediately arrested for the homicides and in 1995 was sentenced to one year in juvenile detention for other crimes. While locked up, he wrote letters to his girlfriends bragging about the murders, expressing regret that Ricardos was not dead and saying that if caught he could be sentenced to death or spend the rest of his life. life in prison, according to the decision. .
After his release from juvenile detention, Anderson promptly committed five adult crimes, including first-degree assault and robbery, the ruling says. While serving his prison sentence for these crimes, an anonymous tip led police to Anderson’s letters, and he was charged in 1998 with two counts of first-degree murder.
He was convicted two years later and sentenced to 61 years in prison.
Thursday’s majority opinion, by Judge Debra Stephens, notes that due to Anderson’s age at the time of the murders, prosecutors did not charge him with shooting Ricardos — or adding aggravating factors to murder charges that could have warranted an exceptional sentence.
The “Miller Solution”
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama – known as the Miller decision – that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murder. The ruling paved the way for former young offenders to petition trial courts for a re-sentencing, a procedure known as the “Miller Solution”.
Six years after the Miller decision, the state Supreme Court – also in a 5-4 decision – determined that trial judges could not impose life minimum sentences without the possibility of release for youths aged 16 and 17. years convicted of aggravated first degree murder. At the time, Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion that “the direction of change in this country is undeniably and steadily moving towards abandoning the practice of putting child offenders in prison for life.”
The decision centered on the aggravated murder conviction of Brian Bassett, who was 16 when he shot and killed his parents with a stolen gun and drowned his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub at the McCleary family home in the Grays Harbor County, in 1995. .
Going further, the state Supreme Court last year overturned Timothy Haag’s 46-year sentence for killing a 7-year-old girl in Longview, Cowlitz County, in 1994 when he was 17 years. enough weight for Haag’s rehabilitation, and six of the nine justices ruled that a 46-year prison sentence for a teenager was unconstitutional because it amounted to a life sentence.
Bassett and Haag are white.
Between the Bassett and Haag decisions, Anderson had his 2020 “Miller fix” reconsideration hearing, where the judge upheld his original sentence of 61 years.
Then last year, the state Court of Appeals, citing the Haag decision, struck down Bassett’s new “Miller fix” sentence of 60 years as unconstitutional because it amounted to a de facto life sentence.
Last month, Bassett – who served 25 years in prison – was sentenced to 28, meaning he can be released within the next two years, Aberdeen-based radio station KXRO reported.
It was not immediately clear when Haag should be sentenced.
In Anderson’s case, the majority opinion indicates that the re-sentencing judge correctly considered the Miller decision in concluding that Anderson did not act impulsively, as the murders were premeditated; his letters to his girlfriends demonstrated that he understood the risks and consequences of his actions; and he showed maturity by living in his own apartment.
“Because Anderson failed to prove that the 1994 murders reflected youthful immaturity, brashness, or failure to appreciate risk and consequence, Washington’s constitution does not prohibit his standard 61-year sentence. “, wrote Stephens in the majority opinion.
Judges Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener agreed.
Casey McNerthney, spokesman for King County prosecutors, said the trial judge “considered both aggravating and mitigating factors” in Anderson’s case and that the Supreme Court’s decision ” confirmed the authority of the sentencing court”.
“While murder cases requiring such lengthy sentences are not common, it is important that judges be allowed to appropriately sentence serious premeditated murders when these cases come to court,” McNerthney said in a statement. E-mail.
In his dissenting opinion, González wrote that the re-sentencing judge failed to meaningfully consider how minors are different from adults and how those differences applied to Anderson. González also wrote that the judge failed to give significant weight to significant evidence of Anderson’s rehabilitation in prison and improperly placed the burden on Anderson to prove his immaturity at the time of the murders.
He wrote that Anderson living alone was not a sign of maturity but rather “a sign of a child thrown into the world too soon”. He also noted that Anderson’s only offense in prison was taking an unauthorized shower in 2016. Nothing in Anderson’s letters showed he had sufficient brain development to merit a de facto life sentence. , wrote González.
“Here, the majority is trying to reverse our stake in Haag by effectively reversing its outright ban [on de facto life sentences for juveniles] without expressly saying so or showing that it is incorrect or harmful,” González’s dissent says. “…Make no mistake, the consequences of the majority opinion today will be profound. “
Judges Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis joined González in his dissent.
Yu, who agreed with González’s dissent, wrote in his own dissenting opinion that the majority failed to give Anderson the same considerations given to Bassett and Haag and declined to apply compelling precedent. She wrote that the majority “conspicuously fail to mention” that race is an additional distinguishing factor in all three cases.
“I am not suggesting that the majority knowingly or intentionally discriminates against Anderson on the basis of his race,” Yu wrote. “…[But] if so, it would be willfully foolish to conclude that race played no role in the dramatically inconsistent treatment accorded to these three former juvenile offenders by our justice system.”