The 5-4 decision Thursday came in the case of a teen who had sex with a 12-year-old girl just days after his 18th birthday. He testified that he thought the girl was older.
SEATTLE (AP) — The youth of an adult defendant can form the basis of an unusually light sentence, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday in ordering a new sentencing hearing for a teen who raped a 12-year-old girl just days after his 18th birthday.
The 5-4 decision clarified a 1996 ruling from the court, which many had interpreted to mean judges were not allowed to consider whether defendant’s youth alone made him or her less culpable. In writing for the majority, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud pointed to studies showing that people’s brains continue to develop until they’re in their 20s — research also cited by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago in outlawing the death penalty for juveniles.
While a defendant’s age does not automatically entitle every youthful defendant to an exceptionally low sentence, she wrote, “in light of what we know today about adolescents’ cognitive and emotional development, we conclude that youth may, in fact, relate to a defendant’s crime. … Youth can, therefore, amount to a substantial and compelling factor, in particular cases, justifying a sentence below the standard range.”
The ruling came in the case of Sean Thompson O’Dell, who was convicted of second-degree child rape in King County Superior Court. O’Dell had sex with a 12-year-old girl 10 days after he turned 18. He testified that he had seen her drinking wine and thought she was older.
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Had he committed the crime two weeks earlier and been convicted as a juvenile, he would have faced nine months or less in custody. Instead, he was given a standard-range sentence of nine years in prison, after the trial judge cited the 1996 ruling in deciding that an adult defendant’s youthfulness was not a mitigating factor that warrants an exceptionally low sentence.
He appealed both the conviction and the sentence. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction but ordered a new sentencing hearing, with instructions for the judge to consider whether the defendant’s youth justified a lesser punishment.
The majority also noted that the defense does not need to put on expert testimony about his youth or immaturity. Instead, the sentencing judge could look to testimony from O’Dell’s mother about how he still rolled his eyes at her and had Lego toys and a stuffed animal in his room, the justices said.
“Brain science has really established that kids are different,” said Gregory Link, the Washington Appellate Project lawyer who represented O’Dell. “It’s one thing to see those things in scientific journals. This is the court taking something from the scientific journals and giving it real-world significance.”
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Charles Wiggins, Steven Gonzalez and Mary Yu joined McCloud in the majority.
Justices Mary Fairhurst, Susan Owens, Charles Johnson and Debra Stephens argued in dissent that youth should not form the basis of exceptionally low sentences unless defendants show that youth actually affected their ability to understand their actions or follow the law.
“Whether an individual constructs Legos or enjoys video games tells us little about whether he has the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct,” Fairhurst wrote. “Indeed, these are activities enjoyed by many adults.”
O’Dell did not demonstrate that his youthfulness diminished his ability to follow the law, the dissenters said.