The state Supreme Court has upheld a man’s 61-year prison sentence for his role in a double murder when he was a teenager, raising concerns among dissenting justices that the ruling is a step backward in the evolving area of law that generally considers youths less culpable for crimes than adults.

The 5-4 decision that will keep Tonelli Anderson, who is Black, in prison includes dissenting opinions from Chief Justice Steven González and Justice Mary Yu, who highlighted the legal system’s historically unequal treatment of Black Americans and other people of color. She also noted recent Supreme Court decisions granting relief to two white men who also killed when they were juveniles.

Four of the five justices who signed off on the majority opinion upholding a King County Superior Court judge’s conclusion that Anderson’s 1994 crimes in Tukwila did not reflect the hallmarks of a young brain are white. Three of the four dissenting justices are people of color.

Travis Stearns, a Washington Appellate Project attorney who represented Anderson, who was six months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the killings, also sees Thursday’s ruling as a step backward by denying his client an opportunity for release in his lifetime.

Now 45, Anderson will be in his 80s when he becomes eligible for release — if he lives that long, given that life expectancy for people in prison is shorter than the general population.

“Mr. Anderson has spent his time in prison making up for his mistakes,” Stearns said in an email. “After decades of infraction-free life, he should have the opportunity to show his rehabilitation is genuine and receive a second look at his sentence. Unlike almost every other Washington youth who committed serious crimes, he will never have that chance.”

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Stearns said it’s “disturbing” the Supreme Court has given white men who killed as teens relief Anderson was not afforded, saying the majority decision “is contrary to both long-established principles of law and newly recognized principles of justice.”

“Reducing racial injustice in the criminal legal system requires judges to account for racial discrimination in their decisions,” Stearns said.

Drug heist turns deadly

Anderson agreed in September 1994 to back up his friend Porshay Austin in a plan to steal cocaine from James Bateman, 25, and kill him and any witnesses in Bateman’s Tukwila home, according to facts of the case included in Thursday’s ruling.

Austin fatally shot Bateman after Bateman’s girlfriend, Lynell Ricardos, supplied a quarter-kilogram of cocaine, the ruling says. Anderson shot Ricardos and another woman in front of Ricardos’ 2-year-old son, according to the ruling.

The other woman, Kristin McMullen, of Seattle, died. Ricardos was gravely injured.

Anderson wasn’t immediately arrested for the homicides and in 1995 was sentenced to a year in juvenile custody for other crimes. While locked up, he wrote letters to his girlfriends bragging about the killings, expressing regret that Ricardos didn’t die and saying that if he was caught, he could get the death penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison, the ruling says.

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After his release from juvenile custody, Anderson quickly committed five adult felonies, including first-degree assault and robbery, the ruling says. While serving his prison sentence for those crimes, an anonymous tip led police to Anderson’s letters, and he was charged in 1998 with two counts of first-degree murder.

He was found guilty two years later and sentenced to 61 years in prison.

Thursday’s majority opinion, by Justice Debra Stephens, notes that because of Anderson’s age at the time of the killings, prosecutors didn’t charge him with shooting Ricardos — or add aggravating factors to the murder charges that could have justified an exceptional sentence.

The “Miller fix”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama — known as the Miller decision — that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment forbids life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The decision opened the way for former young offenders to petition trial courts to be resentenced, a procedure referred to as a “Miller fix.”

Six years after the Miller decision, the state Supreme Court — also in a 5-4 ruling — determined trial judges may not impose minimum life sentences without the possibility of release for 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of aggravated first-degree murder. At the time, Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion that “the direction of change in this country is unmistakably and steadily moving toward abandoning the practice of putting child offenders in prison for their entire lives.”

That ruling centered on the aggravated murder conviction of Brian Bassett, who was 16 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, in 1995.

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Going a step further, the state Supreme Court last year overturned Timothy Haag‘s 46-year sentence for killing a 7-year-old girl in Longview, Cowlitz County, in 1994 when he was 17. The justices unanimously agreed the sentencing judge failed to give enough weight to Haag’s rehabilitation, and six of the nine justices said a 46-year prison term for a teenager was unconstitutional because it amounted to the equivalent of a life sentence.

Both Bassett and Haag are white.

In between the Bassett and Haag rulings, Anderson in 2020 had his “Miller fix” resentencing hearing, where the judge upheld his original 61-year sentence.

Then last year, the state Court of Appeals, citing the Haag decision, overturned Bassett’s new “Miller fix” sentence of 60 years as unconstitutional because it amounted to a de facto life sentence.

Last month, Bassett — who has served 25 years in prison — was resentenced to 28 years, which means he will be eligible for release within the next two years, Aberdeen-based radio station KXRO reported.

It wasn’t immediately clear when Haag is to be resentenced.

In Anderson’s case, the majority opinion says the resentencing judge properly considered the Miller decision in concluding Anderson didn’t act impulsively, as the murders were premeditated; his letters to his girlfriends demonstrated he understood the risks and consequences of his actions; and he demonstrated maturity by living in his own apartment.

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“Because Anderson has not proved that the 1994 murders reflected youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences, Washington’s constitution does not forbid his standard-range 61-year sentence,” Stephens wrote in the majority opinion.

Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener concurred.

Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for King County prosecutors, said the trial judge “considered both the aggravating and mitigating factors” in Anderson’s case and that the Supreme Court decision “affirmed the sentencing court’s authority.”

“While murder cases calling for such long sentences are not common, it is important that judges be allowed to appropriately sentence serious premeditated murders when those cases come before the court,” McNerthney said in an email.

In his dissenting opinion, González wrote that the resentencing judge didn’t meaningfully consider how juveniles are different from adults and how those differences applied to Anderson. González also wrote that the judge failed to give meaningful weight to significant evidence of Anderson’s rehabilitation in prison and improperly placed the burden on Anderson to prove his immaturity at the time of the killings.

He wrote that Anderson living on his own wasn’t a sign of maturity but instead “a sign of a child thrust into the world too soon.” He also noted Anderson’s only infraction in prison was for taking a shower without permission in 2016. Nothing in Anderson’s letters showed he had sufficient brain development to deserve a de facto life sentence, González wrote.

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“Here, the majority attempts to walk back our holding in Haag by effectively overruling its categorical bar [on de facto life sentences for juveniles] without expressly saying so or showing that it is incorrect or harmful,” González’s dissent says. ” … Make no mistake, the consequences of the majority’s opinion today will be profound.”

Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis joined González in his dissent.

Yu, who concurred with González’s dissent, wrote in her own dissenting opinion that the majority failed to give Anderson the same considerations granted to Bassett and Haag and refused to apply controlling precedent. She wrote the majority also “conspicuously fails to mention” that race is an additional distinguishing factor in the three cases.

“I do not suggest the majority is knowingly or intentionally discriminating against Anderson on the basis of his race,” Yu wrote. ” …[But] in this case, it would be willfully oblivious to conclude that race has played no role in the dramatically inconsistent treatment given to these three former juvenile offenders by our court system.”