For more than 20 years, Jeremiah Bourgeois thought he would die in prison for a murder he committed when he was 14.
Now, after spending more than half his life in prison, the 36-year-old could soon be free after a recent change in the state’s juvenile-sentencing law.
In 1993, Bourgeois became the second-youngest person in the state to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he shot and killed a West Seattle convenience-store owner who had testified against his brother in an assault case.
However, state legislation passed earlier this year has banned automatic sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles.
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Bourgeois, appearing Friday in King County Superior Court, saw his life sentence amended to a minimum of 25 years to life. As a result, he will be eligible for parole within six months to three years, according to his defense attorney, Jeff Ellis.
“I am grateful that I have an opportunity to be released today,” Bourgeois said in a courtroom at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. “But I don’t want anyone to think I’m not cognizant of the lives that I’ve destroyed.”
The new juvenile-sentencing law went into effect June 1 after the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling didn’t mean that judges cannot hand down such sentences for juvenile killers, but says that judges must also have other sentencing options.
Bourgeois is the third of 28 Washington inmates who were sentenced to life under the old law and whose sentences will be amended in the coming months. Each of the inmates up for amended sentences was convicted of aggravated murder.
On May 19, 1992, Bourgeois killed Tecle Ghebremichale, 41, who had earlier testified against Bourgeois’ older brother in an assault trial in juvenile court. Ghebremichale was still wearing the colostomy bag from the surgery he needed from being shot by Bourgeois’ brother, according to a news account in The Seattle Times.
After hearing evidence about the crime and about Bourgeois’ lifestyle and criminal history, a juvenile-court judge declined to have him tried as a juvenile. Had he been tried and convicted in juvenile court, Bourgeois could have been imprisoned only until he was 21.
Bourgeois spoke about the victim, Ghebremichale, in court Friday.
“My mom came here as an immigrant from East Africa to work,” he said. “Now I am here today because I shot and killed a man from East Africa. I know this is a tragedy of my own making.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in an interview earlier this week that Bourgeois was tried as an adult because the murder of a witness is considered an attack on the heart of the legal system.
“It was clear retaliation,” Satterberg said. “It’s an assault on the justice system that makes people scared to testify. And if witnesses don’t feel that they are protected, the whole system crumbles.”
The prosecutor’s office has been unable to reach the family of Ghebremichale. Satterberg said his relatives “appeared to have moved back to Africa after such a horrible tragedy happened here.”
In the resentencing proceedings, Satterberg said the prosecutor’s office must balance serving justice for serious crimes while acknowledging emerging science that is the basis for the new law.
“Science on the adolescent brain has only been emerging in the last few years,” Satterberg said. “We now know that adolescent brains are not the same as adult brains. They continue to change and develop. This is now the law beginning to respond to that science.”
Bourgeois is one of three defendants convicted in King County affected by the new law. The others are Alex Barayni and David Anderson, who killed a Bellevue family of four in 1997.
Satterberg said that while the prosecutor’s office was open to reviewing Bourgeois’ sentence, it will fight against amended sentences for Barayni and Anderson for what he calls “one of the most heinous crimes in state history.”
“Beginning to hope”
Under the new legislation, life without parole is still possible for juvenile defendants, but not mandated, in crimes committed by persons 16 or older. However, for defendants like Bourgeois, who kill before reaching the age of 16, the highest sentence a judge may set is a minimum of 25 years to life.
Vincent Southerland, one of Bourgeois’ defense attorneys, has been working on ending mandatory life sentences for juveniles since the mid-2000s, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“You can’t take a snapshot of somebody at that age and decide we’re going to throw them away for life,” Southerland said.
“The recent legal developments are an incredibly positive sign. They show that nobody is beyond redemption. For these people, before now you had no hope whatsoever, now you see that they are beginning to hope that what they did when they were teenagers won’t define their lives. That is why the case is so important.”
Bourgeois’ lawyers hope that his behavior in prison will help him when he comes before the parole board.
He has focused on education and legal studies during his years of incarceration, earning a paralegal certificate and working toward a bachelor’s degree, according to his girlfriend, Aimee Muul. Bourgeois has written an academic paper about his case that was published by The Ohio State University.
Applause broke out in the courtroom at the close of Friday’s hearing from a room filled with Bourgeois’ friends and family. His father, sister and brother attended, along with former cellmates, caseworkers and teachers.
“I have taught 1,000-plus students in over 30 years of teaching,” said Joseph Brotherton, who taught law to Bourgeois while he was in prison. “There is no doubt that Bourgeois is in the top 20 of all time. His mind has blown me away in classes.”
Once Bourgeois is released, he and his girlfriend plan to move in together. One of his goals is to eventually earn a Ph.D. and become a professor, she said.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Erin Heffernan: 206-464-3249 or firstname.lastname@example.org