Nearly 4½ years after six masked males stormed a Seattle homeless encampment to rob a drug dealer, two brothers who were found guilty of fatally shooting two people and critically injuring three others were each sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison.
After a daylong hearing, which included testimony from expert defense witnesses and victim-impact statements from family members of one victim who died and a scathing rebuke from a surviving victim, King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell took a moment to reflect on the violence meted out by James and Jerome Taafulisia on the night of Jan. 26, 2016.
Jeannine Brooks, 45, was shot twice as she tried to escape the gunfire, O’Donnell said. Brooks, also known as Jeannine Zapata, died at the scene.
“She had a bus ticket to leave the city” the next day and had only dropped by the Jungle “to say goodbye to her friends,” the judge said.
James Tran, 31, was a new father who went to the encampment “because he didn’t want to get high around his family and new child,” O’Donnell said.
Tran died en route to Harborview Medical Center.
Amy Jo Shinault was shot twice and “the bullet fragments remain in her body”; Tracy Bauer was shot in the back, and has a bullet lodged in her spine that’s caused permanent nerve damage, the judge said.
The target of the robbery and shooting, Phat Nguyen, “was shot once in the stomach and left to die,” said O’Donnell, noting that while Nguyen survived, he’ll be dealing with injuries caused by the gunshot for the rest of his life.
“These young men calculated every detail of this crime,” disguising and arming themselves and planning their approach to the encampment, where they committed a mass shooting, O’Donnell said. “These are egregious crimes.”
James and Jerome Taafulisia were 17 and 16 years old during their January 2016 shooting spree at “the Caves,” a former homeless encampment within the sprawling, 150-acre Jungle that was shut down by the city nine months later.
Now 22 and 20, the brothers were charged as adults and stood trial three times: Their first two trials, held at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, ended in mistrials, in August 2018 and March 2019. After the judge who presided over those trials retired, the brothers’ case was returned to Seattle, where a jury heard four weeks of testimony and deliberated for 1½ days before finding the brothers guilty of all charges on Dec. 12.
Evidence at trial showed James Taafulisia was armed with a .45-caliber handgun and Jerome Taafulisia was armed with his mother’s .22-caliber handgun. Their younger brother, who was 13 at the time, was considered a full participant in the robbery but didn’t shoot anyone. He was found guilty of murder and assault charges in juvenile court in May 2018. Now 18, 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.
Three other males participated in the robbery but there wasn’t enough evidence for them to be charged, prosecutors have said.
James and Jerome Taafulisia will spend the first years of their sentences at Green Hill School in Chehalis, a medium/maximum security facility run by the state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration for male youthful offenders between the ages of 16 and 25, the judge heard Thursday. They will later be transferred into the custody of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to serve the remainder of their sentences.
Had James and Jerome Taafulisia been adults at the time of the shootings, they would have faced standard sentencing ranges of roughly 90 to 113 years in prison, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa told the court. But their young ages and their horrific childhoods — which included chronic homelessness, parental abuse and neglect, early exposure to drugs and violent crime, and numerous other traumas — are mitigating circumstances that warrant an exceptional sentence below the standard range, the state and defense agreed in presentencing memos submitted to O’Donnell, who presided over the brothers’ third trial.
Defense attorneys representing the brothers recommended far shorter prison terms than did prosecutors: James Taafulisia’s lawyer, Dan Norman, recommended he receive a 17-year sentence, while Jerome Taafulisia’s defense attorney, Yvonne Curtis, recommended he serve 20 years.
Barbosa and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Stephen Herschkowitz recommended that the brothers each be sentenced to 47 years, arguing the defense sentence recommendations were far too lenient given the violence inflicted on the five victims, their families and the Seattle community.
But prosecutors agreed with the defense that the brothers were less culpable for their crimes, given their upbringing, which included being assaulted and burned with cigarettes by their parents and being forced by their mother to sell drugs and commit robberies.
“The adults in the lives of James and Jerome normalized crime … particularly violent crime,” Barbosa said. Committing “robberies and thefts were a large part of their childhood activities.”
The shootings occurred a little after 7 p.m. on Jan. 26, 2016, when six masked males on bicycles arrived at the Caves below Interstate 5.
The group was in and out of the encampment in two minutes.
After the elder brothers opened fire on people seated around a fire pit, the youngest Taafulisia brother grabbed Nguyen’s bag and jacket as the group fled the scene.
Prosecutors’ evidence against the Taafulisia brothers included a 90-minute video secretly recorded by two police informants depicting the brothers discussing the shootings.
During trial, jurors 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.
A Seattle Police Department SWAT team arrested the brothers at a nearby homeless encampment on Feb. 1, 2016.
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 six days after the shootings, the youngest brother had two $100 bills that had been marked by police with him.
Brooks’ family members, Nguyen and Shinault were in court Thursday along with relatives and dozens of supporters of the Taafulisia brothers. Everyone was required to wear masks and practice social distancing. With the global coronavirus pandemic still raging, approximately 50 people, including Tran’s family members, watched the proceedings over the video platform Zoom, and another 200 or so listened over an open phone line.
Brooks was remembered for her infectious laugh and commitment to kicking her addiction and making amends with her children.
“My heart is torn,” said her mother, Nadine Brooks. “Jeannine was a beautiful, vibrant woman who worked hard to straighten her life out. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Nguyen called himself the brothers’ prime target and questioned whether the robbery was worth the life of his two friends. He said he relives getting shot and watching his friends die every morning when he wakes up.
“You have to pay for what you did, you have to pay for everybody you killed,” Nguyen said. “I’m here to make sure you can’t shoot or hurt another human being again.”
Defense attorneys Curtis and Norman each questioned forensic psychologists who evaluated the brothers before and after the Jungle shootings, and the experts testified that both Jerome and James Taafulisia were intellectually and developmentally behind their peers; James was born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, making him even more prone to impulsive and aggressive behavior, the court heard.
Norman referenced nearly 9,000 pages of Child Protective Services reports, school records and other documents that showed various systems repeatedly failed to address the brothers’ horrendous living conditions, post-traumatic stress or cognitive disabilities.
“These boys weren’t groomed to commit crimes, but forced to commit crimes,” Norman said, and even after twice being taken away from their mother, “nothing ever changed.”
Although James Taafulisia declined to address the judge, Jerome Taafulisia stood before O’Donnell and sang his condolences to the victims’ families with lyrics he wrote about the Jungle shootings, saying the night left him scarred and asking for a second chance for him and his brother. James Taafulisia burst into tears.
“I was just a kid when I was homeless/ I tried to find a way out but I was hopeless,” Jerome Taafulisia sang.
Before O’Donnell handed down his sentence, the attorneys in the case referenced a trio of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, handed down between 2005 and 2012, that were based on neuroscience that’s proven adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until at least age 25 — and as a result, juveniles are considered less culpable than adults for criminal behavior. Science also has shown that adolescents possess a greater propensity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults.
In 2017, a state Supreme Court ruling gave trial judges unfettered discretion in sentencing defendants who were juveniles at the time a crime was committed and then were convicted in adult, or superior, court. Judges now must consider a defendant’s age when a crime was committed and other mitigating circumstances to depart from standard sentencing ranges.
The state Legislature also enacted a provision ensuring that most juveniles who commit serious violent crimes will be released after serving 20 years, regardless of the length of their initial sentence, Barbosa said.
There is a presumption that a juvenile offender will be released after 20 years unless the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board determines the offender is likely to commit more crimes if released, she said.
Five years before an offender’s release date, DOC is required to offer a variety of treatment programs to aid re-entry into the community. If a juvenile offender is released after 20 years, DOC can impose community supervision, the state’s version of parole, up to the length of the court-imposed sentence — and if offenders violate their release conditions, they can be returned to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences.
Material from The Seattle Times’ archive is included in this story.
Correction: Jeannine Brooks’ name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Jeannine is spelled with two ‘n’s, not one.