The court found it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of release, potentially paving the way for freedom for a man who was 16 when he killed his parents and 5-year-old brother in Grays Harbor County.
Brian Bassett was 16 in 1995 when he fatally shot his parents with a stolen rifle and drowned his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub at the family’s home in McCleary, Grays Harbor County.
Sentenced to three life terms, Bassett, now 38, received a dose of hope Tuesday that someday he could walk out of prison a free man. The state Court of Appeals agreed with him that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for juvenile defendants is unconstitutional because it violates the state’s prohibition against cruel punishment.
“It is a big deal,” Bassett’s attorney, Eric Lindell, said of the ruling. “It says that no kids in Washington, under our constitution, can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
The ruling doesn’t mean those who committed heinous crimes as children will automatically go free. It only means that those previously sentenced to life in prison will get the chance to be resentenced and then go before the state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, Lindell said.
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It would be up to the board to grant or deny release.
“The brains of kids are different than the brains of adults, and the legal system has recognized you can’t treat kids as miniature adults,” Lindell said.
The Grays Harbor County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is now “strongly considering” petitioning the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling, said Prosecutor Katie Svoboda. Her office has 30 days to file a petition for review.
“I obviously disagree with the ruling,” Svoboda said. “This is a case that merits life without parole.”
The three-judge Court of Appeals panel noted 19 states and the District of Columbia have already banned life without parole sentences for juveniles, and most have done so in the past five years.
The appellate judges pointed out the U.S. is the only nation that allows juveniles to serve life sentences without parole — and they agreed with Bassett’s argument that societal standards of decency favor banning life sentences for juveniles.
Even though a ban isn’t in place in a majority of states, “it is not so much the number of states that is important, but the consistency of the change’s direction,” the ruling says.
Most crimes committed by juveniles reflect “only transient immaturity,” and it is only the rarest of juvenile offenders whose crimes represent permanent corruption or incorrigibility, according to the opinion.
“This movement toward banning juvenile life without parole is particularly striking in light of the well-known fact anti-crime legislation is far more popular than legislation providing protections for persons guilty of violent crimes,” the opinion says.
The judges drew a comparison with a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in which the justices concluded there was a “national consensus” against executing people with intellectual disabilities.
That comparison “compels the conclusion that a national consensus is building against juvenile life without parole sentences,” says Tuesday’s opinion authored by Judge Jill Johanson. Judges Lisa Worswick and Linda Lee concurred.
In its published opinion, the appellate court struck down a state statute known as the “Miller-fix” that was enacted in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama.
In that case, the nation’s high court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional and required state and federal courts to consider the unique circumstances of a juvenile’s life when determining an individualized sentence. Miller built on earlier rulings in which the Supreme Court banned executions for juveniles convicted of murder and, a few years later, banned life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.
In Tuesday’s opinion, the state appellate judges referenced those federal court rulings:
“Miller noted that for youth, life without parole is an especially harsh punishment because the juvenile will almost inevitably serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.”
Further, a life sentence “means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the convict], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days.”
As a result of the Miller decision, the state Legislature in 2014 enacted the Miller-fix. It required that juveniles who are under age 16 when they commit aggravated first-degree murder must serve a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life. But youth who were age 16 to 18 when they committed aggravated murder must serve no less than 25 years, though a minimum term of life in prison may still be imposed.
Bassett killed his parents with the help of his then-17-year-old friend, Nicholaus McDonald. Bassett and McDonald hid the bodies, then fled to Oregon, where McDonald turned himself in to police the next day and implicated Bassett in the killings.
McDonald was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
In 2015, Bassett returned to Grays Harbor County Superior Court for resentencing as part of his Miller hearing, according to Lindell and the court opinion. Lindell sought to have Bassett sentenced to three, 25-year sentences to be served concurrently, allowing him to earn early release credit.
Lindell presented evidence showing Bassett had pursued an education and made the honor roll, participated in counseling programs, received various trade certifications, gotten married, mentored other inmates and hadn’t broken a single prison rule since 2003.
A psychiatrist who counseled Bassett in 1995 also testified that Bassett had average cognitive ability and a strained relationship with his family, and that he suffered from an adjustment disorder that resulted in poor emotional and behavioral responses to the stress.
Svoboda, the prosecutor, didn’t rebut the evidence but argued “that compared to the severity of Bassett’s crimes, the mitigation evidence did not show that Bassett should be considered for parole or early release,” the opinion says.
Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards agreed and imposed three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of release. It was that decision that Bassett then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
“In this case, we have the benefit of 20 years to see which way Brian is going to go, and he’s been steady,” Lindell said of his client, who builds and refurbishes wheelchairs at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where he’s been imprisoned since 2005.
“If there’s any question about whether he’s been rehabilitated, it’s been answered through two decades of accomplishment, consideration and good behavior,” Lindell said.
“Most juveniles should be given the opportunity to come back into society,” she said. “Mr. Bassett is that exception; he’s that rare juvenile whose crimes were so bad he will never be safe to return to the community at large.”