State v. Bassett, No. 47251-1-II, 2017 WL 1469240 (Wash. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2017) – Defendant, age 16 at the time of the crimes, was convicted by a jury of three counts of aggravated murder and sentenced, pre-Miller, to three LWOP sentences. In 2015, he was resentenced under the state’s Miller fix statute, pursuant to which a juvenile offender may petition for resentencing. On resentencing, the court again imposed three LWOP sentences. Defendant appealed, arguing that a provision of the Miller-fix statute permitting reimposition of LWOP sentences violates the state’s constitutional prohibition against cruel punishment. Treating the petition as a personal restraint petition (PRP), the appellate court held that under a categorical bar analysis, the statutory Miller-fix provision permitting 16-to-18-year-old offenders convicted of aggravated first degree murder to be sentenced to LWOP or early release violated article 1, section 14 of the state constitution. Accordingly, defendant’s sentence was reversed and the case remanded for resentencing.
At defendant’s 2015 resentencing, he had argued that the Miller fix statute was unconstitutional under Miller and requested that he be resentenced to three 25-year concurrent sentences and allowed early release credit. In support, he offered mitigation-related evidence of rehabilitation, including programming completed during his incarceration as well as testimony of his counselor from the time of the crimes. Citing the severity of the crimes, the state opposed a sentence reduction and argued that defendant’s crimes were premeditated and that no evidence demonstrated an acceptable explanation. The resentencing court acknowledged that it had a duty to consider the Miller factors and not to base its decision on the “horrific circumstances of the crime alone.” Nonetheless, it determined that the circumstances surrounding the offense showed that the defendant had not acted from impulse and that he appreciated the risks and consequences of his actions. Moreover, it concluded that defendant’s homelessness “meant that he was potentially more responsible and in control of his behaviors than other 16-year-olds.” It further determined that defendant’s infraction-free record in prison and educational and trade-related endeavors “did not carry much weight” and were less evidence of rehabilitation than of attempts to “make his time in prison more tolerable.“ Ultimately, it determined that the evidence about the commission of the crimes outweighed the mitigating nature of defendant’s adolescence, and that no amount of time in prison “is going to ever result in his being rehabilitated such that he could safely return to any community.” Accordingly, the resentencing court imposed three consecutive LWOP sentences.
Defendant appealed. Consistent with statute, in order to facilitate review of a minimum term decision on the merits, the appellate court disregarded defendant’s procedural defect in filing a direct appeal rather than a PRP and instead treated defendant’s petition as a PRP. In order to obtain relief under a PRP, defendant had to show that he was unlawfully restrained. Here, he argued that the state’s Miller-fix statute, RCW 10.95.030(3)(a)(ii), violated article 1, section 14 of the state constitution. The court agreed. In particular, the court concluded that sentences providing for life without parole or early release under the relevant portion of the Miller-fix statute—permitting an LWOP sentence for aggravated first-degree murder committed when the person is at least 16 years old—are unconstitutional. First, the court adopted the categorical bar analysis used by the Iowa Supreme Court in State v. Sweet, in which the court determined that Miller and Montgomery establish that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders are not available under the federal constitution even for heinous crimes except in very rare cases. It explained that, as in Iowa, Washington has recognized the two general classifications of cruel and unusual sentences that violate the Eighth Amendment: those that are disproportionate and those that are categorically barred. Thus, categorical rules may define constitutional standards for certain classes of crimes or offenders. This requires the review of both objective indicia of societal standards, expressed through legislative enactments and state practice to determine national consensus, as well as the exercise of independent judgment. The court determined that, although no Washington case had applied this Eighth Amendment categorical framework to the state’s cruel and unusual punishment provision, relevant precedent readily supported drawing on the federal analytic framework to resolve state constitutional issues. Here, as in Graham, a categorical approach was appropriate because defendant’s challenge implicated a sentencing practice as applied to an entire class of juvenile offenders. Moreover, the Washington Supreme Court had already adopted and applied Miller’s reasoning beyond its holding in numerous contexts and thus, as in Iowa, there was little to be gained by allowing further case-by-case development without confronting a larger, categorical issue. Finally, a narrower, proportionality-focused approach—as the state requested—would not address the special concerns inherent to juvenile sentencing under Miller, requiring focus on the nature of the crime rather than the nature of the offender.
Applying the categorical bar analysis to the statute at issue and citing “the number of states that have abolished or functionally abandoned juvenile life without parole sentences,” the court agreed with the defendant that “societal standards of decency favor banning juvenile life without parole or early release sentences.” Looking first to legislative enactments and state practice, the court noted that, as of February 2017, 19 states and the District of Columbia have banned juvenile life without parole sentences. It explained: “although this is not the majority of United States jurisdictions, we focus on the recent proliferation of legislative decisions to ban juvenile life without parole sentences because it is the direction of the change that matters.” Indeed, in the five years since Miller, 13 states and DC have banned juvenile life without parole sentences, and 11 did so by legislative enactment. Moreover, among the 31 states that allow the sentence, only four states account for half of the nation’s current JLWOP sentences. And the United States is the only nation in the world to allow juveniles to serve LWOP. Thus, objective indicia of societal standards expressed through legislative enactments and state practice illustrate a growing national consensus against JLWOP. Applying its independent judgment, the court agreed with the defendant that imposing JLWOP “is unworkable under Washington’s broader protection against cruel punishment. The court cited the Miller fix statute’s “fundamental problem”: the sentencing court is placed in the impossible position of predicting based on application of the Miller factors which juveniles will prove to be irretrievably corrupt, “a task even expert psychologists cannot complete with certainty.” Thus, the statute “results in an unacceptable risk that juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect transient immaturity will be sentenced to life without parole or early release because the sentencing court mistakenly identifies the juvenile as one of the uncommon, irretrievably corrupt juveniles.” Moreover, because Washington’s cruel punishment clause provides greater protection than the Eighth Amendment, “life without parole or early release sentences may be imposed upon only the most uncommon and rarest of offenders, an impossible determination for the sentencing court to make when faced with a juvenile offender.” Further, the speculative and uncertain nature of the Miller-factor analysis results in insufficient guidance to alleviate the risk. Thus, “life sentences without parole or early release for juvenile offenders as allowed under RCW 10.95.030(3)(a)(ii) are unconstitutional.” Sentence reversed, remanded for resentencing.