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WA high court says no automatic life without parole for 18-20 year-olds

A person places their hand on a window inside a jail as demonstrators make noise outside during an anti-police protest on Jan. 24, 2021 in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

In a 5-4 decision, justices in the Supreme Court of the State of Washington tossed the life without parole sentences of a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old convicted in separate cases of first degree aggravated murder decades ago, saying, as with juveniles, the court must first consider the age of those under 21 before sentencing them to die behind bars.

It’s an issue democratic Chair of the House Public Safety Committee Roger Goodman has already been working on, “making this distinction between youthful offenders and adults and the degree to which they’re culpable, and therefore the degree to which incarceration should be for life or not,” explained Goodman, referring to research suggesting that young people’s brains may not be fully developed until 25, so they may not fully understand the consequences of their actions.

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Kurtis Monschke and Dwayne Bartholomew were convicted in separate cases decades ago of aggravated first-degree murder, which under state law has historically been punishable only by the death penalty or life without possibility of release. The court has since struck down capital punishment as unconstitutional, leaving an automatic sentence of life without release as the only punishment for adults convicted of the state’s most serious offense.

The U.S. Supreme Court already ruled that those under 18 could not receive mandatory life without parole sentences.

But justices in the dissent opposed these protections being expanded to 18 to 20 year-olds – which the state court is believed to be the first court to do.

“The Legislature has decided that 18-year-olds can form contracts, drop out of school, get married, work a hazardous job, and serve in the military — and it’s not unreasonable for the Legislature to also find that they should face the full consequences of their crimes,” Justice Susan Owens wrote.

“Children are different, certainly. But Monschke and Bartholomew were not children when they brutally murdered their victims,” Owens wrote.

Bartholomew was convicted in the killing of Paul Turner II, a Tacoma laundromat attendant, in 1981 after telling his brother he was going to rob the business and leave no witnesses. He was 20 at the time, suffering from depression and other mental health problems.

Monschke was 19 in March 2003 when he and two other members of a white supremacist group fatally beat Randall Townsend, a 42-year-old homeless man, also in Tacoma, to earn red shoelaces, a symbol that the wearer had assaulted a member of a minority group.

The dissent also noted that no other state court or legislature has given these kind of protections to 18 to 20 year-olds. They also question how, under the majority ruling, they could even realistically consider the offender’s age, writing how are judges to determine whether a crime represents a defendant’s “transient immaturity” in favor of a lesser sentence, as opposed to “irreparable corruption” warranting life without parole?

Whatever the case, this ruling means that the sentences of the two offenders are vacated and the pair now will be returned to Pierce County Superior Court – decades after their crimes – for resentencing.

The dissent also warned this majority opinion may have severe implications given retroactivity.

“The lead opinion’s monumental rule today entails severe consequences that may lead to extending prohibitions of mandatory LWOP and SRA sentences to this new group,” wrote Owens, referring to life without parole and Sentencing Reform Act sentences involving 18 to 20 year-olds.

“I believe the Legislature is going to need to step in and say if not life without parole, what is it? Rather than have re-sentencings be case by case,” Goodman said.

“This is something that we are not able to take up in this session because we’re beyond the cut off,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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