A now-25-year-old Seattle man serving time for murder successfully argued for a shorter prison sentence on Friday based on his youth at the time the crime was committed. Elijah Hall was resentenced to 13½ years for the July 2009 slaying of a convenience-store clerk.
King County Superior Court Judge Mariane Spearman on Friday cut in half the 27 ½-year sentence she handed down nearly six years ago to a Seattle man who was 17 when he fatally shot a convenience-store clerk during a failed robbery.
Elijah Hall, now 25, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing 28-year-old Manish Melwani in July 2009. He was sentenced by Spearman to nearly three decades in prison in February 2012.
On Friday, in a courtroom packed with Hall’s extended family members and other supporters, Spearman cut that sentence to 13 ½ years in prison, saying he recklessly caused Melwani’s death and his conduct was best described as first-degree manslaughter.
“He had a very tragic upbringing, chaotic, with not enough support from his mom, moving around and all that. I think it made it hard for him to do well in school,” the judge said.
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“I don’t think you’re irreparably corrupt. I think you have the capacity to change,” Spearman told Hall, who broke down when he realized the judge had shaved 14 years off his sentence.
Hall is among the first criminal defendants in King County to request resentencing based on a March ruling by the state Supreme Court. That decision gave trial judges unfettered discretion to depart from standard sentences and mandatory enhancements in place for adult defendants when sentencing people who were juveniles when they committed a violent crime and were then convicted in adult court.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling builds upon a trio of U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down since 2005 that recognize brain science that’s proven young people are prone to immaturity and impetuosity, often fail to appreciate risks and consequences, and generally are considered less culpable at the time their crimes are committed.
Just after 6:30 a.m. July 26, 2009, Hall — wearing a disguise and armed with a .38-caliber revolver — entered the Seattle Pit Stop Express convenience store and 76 gas station, a neighborhood business he frequented at 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest 58th Street in Ballard.
Melwani was in a backroom as Hall attempted to open the cash register. When Melwani returned and saw Hall behind the counter, the two struggled and Hall shot Melwani in the thigh and abdomen before fleeing the store, ditching his gun and dumping his bloody clothes nearby.
Hall returned later that morning and calmly talked to a police detective, who grew suspicious after Hall claimed to have heard two gunshots from his apartment several blocks away.
Hall, who had a pending robbery case in juvenile court at the time, was arrested a few days later after his fingerprints were found on a pair of sunglasses dropped at the crime scene.
Hall later told police he expected the clerk would be behind the counter and would hand over cash when Hall showed him the gun.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Ann Summers on Friday argued Hall’s original sentence should stand, saying Hall donned a disguise, had previously test-fired his snub-nosed pistol to ensure its lethality, and could have fled the convenience store when his robbery didn’t go as planned and his victim fought back.
While the high courts’ rulings now allow trial judges to take into consideration a defendant’s youth and particular life circumstances and depart from standard sentences, they’ve also made clear that not every juvenile is entitled to a prison sentence below the standard range, said Summers.
She said Hall’s behavior behind bars remains troubling and noted he has racked up numerous serious infractions during his time in prison, 13 this year alone.
The victim’s brother-in-law, who was in court with the victim’s sister, spoke of the pain the family continues to suffer as a result of Melwani’s death.
Vinod Herkishnani said he can’t get the video-recording that showed Melwani getting shot and pistol-whipped out of his mind.
“He grabbed him by his neck and rammed him through the glass … The video is in my mind all the time, how he murdered him,” Herkishnani said. “He says he has changed … I don’t believe him.”
Two of Hall’s high-school teachers, his father, uncle, pastor and a former prison-mate all spoke on Hall’s behalf, detailing his struggles and promise as a youth and the work he’s done to better himself and continue his education while behind bars.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Ellis told the judge Hall didn’t intend to kill Melwani and was convicted of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule: That is, where a non-intentional killing is a foreseeable consequence of committing a violent crime like armed robbery.
But given “the developing brain and the emotional volatility that comes with youth,” young people like Hall have a lesser ability to understand that risk, weigh options and devise a strategy to get themselves out of a situation, said Ellis, who had sought a 10-year sentence.
Hall also addressed the judge, telling her that he must live “the rest of my life … with somebody’s blood on my hands.”
He turned to face the gallery and repeatedly told Melwani’s family members that he was sorry, amping up the emotional tension in the courtroom.
Herkishnani rose to his feet: “I feel bad for your daughter and your mom … I don’t feel bad for you,” he said.
Spearman ordered Hall to turn around and address her, saying, “They’re not ready. They’re not ready to hear this right now.”
Sobbing and red-faced, Hall said, “I’m sorry. I was just a kid. I was just a kid, I didn’t know anything.”