Two recent Washington Supreme Court decisions let out a man who killed a child four decades before his term was supposed to end, the Associated Press reports. A woman served 12 years instead of 40 for killing her 2-year-old daughter. At least two dozen child killers could end up walking after the court found they were improperly convicted. The court’s rulings concerned Washington’s law on felony murder, defined as a homicide that occurs – even by accident – during or “in furtherance of” another felony, such as robbery. For decades, prosecutors charged defendants with second-degree felony murder if an assault led to someone’s death. In 2003, the court decided the law did not allow for felony murder charges in assault cases. In a 5-4 ruling, justices said that in such cases, the assault and homicide are the same act: The homicide does not occur “in furtherance of” assault, it is the assault.
Last fall, the high court applied the decision retroactively – invalidating felony murder convictions based on assaults from 1976 to 2003, when the Legislature changed the law to explicitly allow second-degree murder charges in fatal assault cases. About 280 prisoners may be entitled to have their convictions vacated. “When a court overturns 30 years of precedent to set hundreds of murderers free, that’s a terrible ruling,” prosecutor Seth Fine said. “The court doesn’t seem to recognize the impact this is having on victims’ family members – how wrenching it is to have these cases reopened years or decades after they were closed.”