A divided Washington Supreme Court ruled that a life sentence for juveniles convicted of aggravated murder constitutes cruel punishment and is unconstitutional, reports the Seattle Times. Justice Susan Owens said, “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.” In a minority opinion, Justice Debra Stephens, argued the majority is reinterpreting a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller vs. Alabama, and that the majority improperly eliminated trial judges’ discretion.
Thursday’s 5-to-4 ruling upheld a Court of Appeals decision on Brian Bassett, who was 16 when he fatally shot his parents with a stolen rifle and drowned his five-year-old brother in a bathtub in 1995. The appeals court agreed with Bassett that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for juvenile defendants violates the state’s prohibition against cruel punishment. “It’s an excellent decision. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences people to life for something they did as a child,” said Bassett’s attorney, Eric Lindell. “It’s very consistent with our state constitution and the science that’s developed and proved the minds of juveniles are different from the minds of adults.” Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda said, “When someone commits a triple homicide like Bassett did, that wasn’t a youthful impulse kind of crime, like a drug deal gone bad or a robbery gone bad. It was a premeditated triple homicide crime, including a 5-year-old child who was drowned in a bathtub. I think the facts of the case matter and the victims matter.” There are 30 Washington inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of release for killings when they were 17 or younger. Washington joins 20 other states and Washington, D.C., in abolishing life without parole for juvenile offenders.