In a courtroom filled with the members of two Seattle families linked by a school shooting that shocked the city 20 years ago, a judge once again sentenced the killer to more than a half-century in prison.
It was an emotional day for the relatives of Melissa Fernandes and Brian Ronquillo, who had come to court in the hopes of seeing justice done.
But their ideas of justice were very different.
Fernandes, 16, was shot in the head in a drive-by shooting outside of Ballard High School on March 23, 1994.
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Ronquillo, the 16-year-old gunman, was convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and assault for firing a gun eight times as the car he was in passed students on the campus. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison.
But the state Court of Appeals ruled last year that King County prosecutors had erred in their calculations of his offender score, which determines the possible range of his prison term, before his sentencing. The mistake meant that the sentencing range for his convictions should have been six months less than the original 52-year sentence.
Members of Fernandes’ family came to court to ask the judge not to give Ronquillo a significantly shorter sentence.
Many of them were carrying framed photographs of the dead girl.
“I’m here to help you remember Missy,” said her mother, Tammy Fernandes, her voice choked with tears. “Look at her picture … I think of her every day. My sorrow is deeper than I can share.”
Ronquillo’s family, and his defense attorney, asked for leniency and a reduced sentence.
Ronquillo’s attorney, Stacy Kinzer, argued that the original sentence was excessive for a teenager with no previous criminal history.
“What we’re trying to do is to come up with the most just sentence,” Kinzer said.
Dr. Terry Lee, a University of Washington researcher, presented a study showing the differences between the brains of adolescents and adults. Kinzer said legislators are moving toward laws that recognize those differences and set separate sentencing guidelines for juveniles and adults.
She and several of Ronquillo’s relatives, including the woman he married last year while in prison, said that he has been a model inmate, has completed his schooling, and has worked to aid and educate others within the system.
King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus said the new sentence of 51 years was dictated by the law. “It’s not a question of what I personally believe is a good sentence for a 16-year-old,” Andrus said.
State law in 1994 said that the sentences for a series of violent, serious crimes must run consecutively, not concurrently.
According to court documents, Ronquillo was in one of two cars loaded with teenage boys and young men who were members of a loose-knit Seattle gang called the 23rd Street Diablos.
One of the gang members, Jerome Reyes, had reportedly been chased off the Ballard campus a few days earlier by members of a rival gang, the Bad Side Posse.
The cars of the 23rd Street gang pulled up to Ballard High School around lunchtime, then left when told police were in the area, according to news reports. They returned about an hour later.
That time, Ronquillo fired eight times as the car he was in passed students on the school campus. Fernandes, who police said was an unintended target, was killed and another student was wounded.
It was the first shooting on Seattle Public Schools’ grounds and it predated by five years the Columbine High School shootings in suburban Denver. Newspaper reports from that time say parents were afraid to send their children to school and students were afraid to go.
Reyes pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The driver of the car Ronquillo was in, Cesar Sarausad II, was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder and assault, and was sentenced to 27 years.
Ronquillo’s family declined to speak after the hearing.
Tammy Fernandes said she was happy with the outcome.
“I’m very sorry for his family, but at least they get to visit him,” she said. “I wish him no harm. I just want him to serve out his time.”
Christine Clarridge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times news researcher
Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.