Two Seattle brothers were found guilty Thursday of fatally shooting two people and wounding three others during a January 2016 robbery at “the Caves,” a former homeless encampment within the sprawling, 150-acre Jungle — a case that previously resulted in two mistrials.
A jury deliberated for 1½ days before convicting James and Jerome Taafulisia, now 21 and 20, of two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree assault in connection with the Jan. 26, 2016, shooting spree. Jurors also returned special verdicts, finding that the brothers were armed with a firearm in the commission of each felony count.
The brothers’ previous trials had been held at the Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent, while this one was at the King County courthouse in downtown Seattle before a different judge. The previous mistrials were declared in August 2018 and in March, with juries split 8-4 and 9-3 in favor of conviction.
The latest jury heard four weeks of testimony and saw more than 120 exhibits admitted as evidence, including dozens of crime-scene and autopsy photos.
The shootings took place during a robbery of a prolific drug dealer at the encampment, when the brothers were 16 and 17. The Jungle was shut down by the city in October 2016.
The Taafulisias’ younger brother, who was 13 at the time of the shootings, was convicted in juvenile court of murder and assault charges in the case in May 2018. Now 17, the youngest brother will remain in custody until his 20th birthday and then will spend six months on parole as he transitions back into the community, according to disposition records in his case.
Prosecutors’ evidence against the Taafulisia brothers included a 90-minute video secretly recorded by two police informants depicting the brothers bragging about the killings.
But defense attorneys, who have criticized the work done by detectives involved in the case, have argued the brothers took the fall for older, street-savvy members of their Samoan community who the brothers regarded as role models. Dan Norman, who represented James Taafulisia, said during closing arguments the goal of the shootings had been to wrest control of the drug trade in the Caves away from Phat Nguyen, who was targeted because it was known he had large amounts of cash, drugs, guns and electronics.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa countered that if the plan had been to eliminate Nguyen, then it failed, since Nguyen survived his injuries.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support that,” Barbosa said of the defense theory. “Others certainly planted the seed (for the robbery) … It’s undeniable other adults contributed to their belief it was OK to go up there and commit this crime.”
But the brothers, she said, together planned and staged the robbery — and their accounts on the video matched the crime-scene evidence and victim and witness accounts of what happened.
“I’ll say it again for the last time — watch the video,” she told the jury.
After the verdicts were read Thursday, 10 of the 12 jurors sat in the courtroom, discussing the case with the attorneys. The jurors, who declined to be interviewed by The Seattle Times, told the attorneys it was the video, and their ability to replay sections of it during deliberations, that helped them reach a verdict so quickly.
“Being able to pick that video apart allowed us to come to our decision,” one juror said.
Legal issues surrounding admission of the video as evidence will be part of the basis for the brothers’ appeal of their verdicts, said Yvonne Curtis, who represented Jerome Taafulisia.
Three other males participated in the robbery but there wasn’t enough evidence for them to be charged, jurors were told after rendering their verdict. But Seattle police focused on the shooters — James Taafulisia, who was armed with a .45-caliber handgun, and Jerome Taafulisia, who had his mother’s .22-caliber handgun. Prosecutors said at the time that their younger brother was a full participant in the robbery, but decided not to try to move his case to adult court because he was not believed to have shot anyone.
On the night of Jan. 26, 2016, six masked males arrived at a recycling center on bicycles and used the trails off of Airport Way South to get the Caves below Interstate 5, the jury heard.
The group was in and out of the encampment in two minutes, Barbosa said during closings.
According to court records and testimony at trial, at the time of the shooting, several people were seated around a fire pit. Nguyen, 46, was shot in the chest with the .45-caliber handgun. The man sitting next to him, 33-year-old James Tran, was shot twice with the .45 and died on the way to Harborview Medical Center.
Nguyen’s girlfriend, 47-year-old Tracy Bauer, and Amy Jo Shinault, 41, were each shot in the back. Nguyen, Bauer and Shinault all survived.
One of the suspects grabbed Nguyen’s bag and jacket.
As the group ran away, one of the shooters fired a .22-caliber handgun into a tent, hitting Jeanine Brooks, also known as Jeanine Zapata, in the chest. The 45-year-old died at the scene.
During the robbery, the jury heard the Taafulisias didn’t get the haul they anticipated, leaving the camp with only $100 worth of black-tar heroin and $200 or $300 in cash. The brothers, who had been homeless for years, gave their mother $100 and spent the rest on food, according to testimony.
Police would later match casings from the scene to a .45-caliber handgun purchased from the brothers by a police informant and a .22-caliber handgun police later found in the brothers’ tent. The informant paid $500 for the .45-caliber handgun and when the brothers were arrested on Feb. 1, 2016, the youngest brother had two $100 bills that had been marked by police with him.
A sentencing date for the older brothers was tentatively scheduled for Jan. 13 but is expected to be postponed due to the complexity of sentencing, given the brothers were juveniles when the crimes were committed. The U.S. Supreme Court and the state Supreme Court in recent years have handed down rulings that hold that children, whose brains haven’t fully developed, must be treated differently from adults even when they’re convicted in adult court.
Had James or Jerome Taafulisia been 18 or older at the time of the Caves shootings, they would face a minimum standard-range sentence of 90 years in prison. But in March 2017, the state Supreme Court gave unfettered discretion to judges to depart from standard sentences and mandatory enhancements when sentencing juveniles in adult court.
The ruling stemmed from a 2012 Pierce County case that saw two teens, ages 16 and 17, sentenced to 26 and 31 years respectively for stealing Halloween candy and cellphones at gunpoint in Tacoma. The Supreme Court affirmed their convictions but ordered them to be resentenced.
“We hold that in sentencing juveniles in the adult criminal justice system, a trial court must be vested with full discretion to depart from the sentencing guidelines and any otherwise mandatory sentence enhancements, and to take the particular circumstances surrounding a defendant’s youth into account,” says the court’s majority opinion in the Tacoma case.
Regardless of the sentences that King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell ultimately imposes, the Taafulisia brothers’ cases are eligible for review — and they could possibly be released from prison — 20 years from the time of their arrests. In their case, that would be Feb. 1, 2036.