On Sept. 20, 1992, Guy and Ara Gilbert got a message on their answering machine that they will never forget.
It was from the Klickitat County sheriff, who had just arrested their 15-year-old son, Jeremiah.
In a remote canyon 20 miles east of Goldendale, Wash., Jeremiah and another teen took the lives of two men: 35-year-old Robert David Gresham and 26-year-old Loren Evans.
The boys ran away from their homes in Buckley and went on a “dope and drinking run,” as Jeremiah recalled. Armed with a rifle, Jeremiah shot Gresham and Evans while trying to steal a Ford Bronco.
He was convicted on two counts of aggravated, first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I can remember driving home (from the trial), crying all the way home; realizing that we’d never have our son home again,” said his father, Guy Gilbert.
Now 36, Jeremiah James Gilbert is incarcerated at the corrections center in Clallam Bay. But after 20 years behind bars, he could be released due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed his sentence unconstitutional.
Gilbert is one of 30 inmates in the state of Washington currently serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles; a mandatory sentence here for those convicted of aggravated, first-degree murder before the age of 18.
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that life without parole cannot be the only option for children who kill.
“It’s absolutely the case that children don’t understand the consequences, and the lifetime consequences, not only for themselves but also for the victim,” said Nick Straley, a staff attorney in the Institutions Project for Columbia Legal Services, a non-profit law firm based in Seattle.
Straley said the state legislature must now decide how to come into compliance with the SCOTUS ruling. He would like to see inmates such as Jeremiah Gilbert be given an opportunity for parole.
“These are awful crimes, and no one is suggesting that there shouldn’t be some level of punishment,” he said. “What we are suggesting is that there needs to be an evaluation, both at the front end to evaluate the nature of the crime and the child’s circumstances, and a determination made based on that individual.”
Straley said Gilbert would be an ideal candidate for parole. He teaches other inmates release preparedness at Clallam Bay and participates in a program where prisoners train dogs for adoption; his is a husky-lab mix named Lily.
“He’s really tried to turn his life around,” Straley said. “He, I think, is indicative of the efforts that can be made over a long period of time in prison to better yourself.”
“He came in as a child, and over time he has grown up and his brain has developed and he has realized he made some horrid, awful, terrible mistakes and he’s coming to grips with those.”
According to a survey commissioned by Columbia Legal Services and conducted by a class at the University of Washington, only six percent of people in Washington would oppose parole for children ages 13 to 15 who commit murder.
Jim Gleason, who was the sheriff in Klickitat County in 1992, said he would oppose parole for Gilbert, who he likened to Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza and Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes.
Gleason, now retired and living in Oregon, recalled the murders vividly. He said Gilbert told investigators he shot Evans twice to “put them out of his misery.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon inside their home in Wenatchee, Guy and Ara Gilbert flipped through a book of photos. One picture showed Jeremiah on his father’s shoulders when he was just a toddler. In another, Jeremiah grinned for his first-grade class photo.
“I missed that I didn’t have him as a son letting me do fatherly things like teach him how to drive, his first dates, growing into a family,” Guy Gilbert said.
“Our first grandchild from him – we won’t have any,” said Ara.
They say their son has become a better person behind bars, and hope to make up for two decades of lost time. Guy Gilbert said those who disagree should look back at their 15-year-old selves.
“I would want them to think about some of the things they did when they were fifteen,” he said. “Have they matured? Have they grown? Have they gotten beyond those things and would they ever go back and do those things? Probably not.”
During an interview in July 2012 for an unrelated story, Jeremiah Gilbert spoke with KIRO Radio about the possibility of release.
“I am a realist,” he said. I have steeled myself for the possibility of being told, ‘We decide you are still worthy of your life sentence and that’s what we’re staying with.'”
In a letter written on Dec. 10, 2012, Gilbert said he is working to develop family and community ties should he be granted parole.
“I haven’t a clue how much longer I’ll be imprisoned,” he wrote. “I do, however know I’ll not waste a minute more merely existing.”
The state legislature is expected to take up the issue of juvenile life without parole sentences this session, which begins on Monday.