The lawyer for a black man serving a virtual life sentence for shootings he committed when he was 17 has asked the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider a split decision that upheld his conviction, saying the leniency it granted to the white defendants in similar situations reveals a racial bias.
Last month, the court upheld the 61-year sentence for Tonelli Anderson, 45, over strong dissents by four judges.
The decision abandoned a precedent set just a year earlier in which the court said, in the case of a white defendant, that such long sentences for minor murderers were unconstitutional because they left them no chance for meaningful lives outside the prison.
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“When this court makes decisions that reflect racial bias, it must review and correct them,” Travis Stearns, an attorney with the Washington Appellate Project, wrote in a motion filed last week. “Because this decision reflects that bias, this Court should reconsider its decision and provide Tonelli with the same relief received by the white litigants who appeared before this Court.”
On Monday, three civil rights organizations: the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University Law School; the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center; and Huy, who supports Indigenous inmates in the Pacific Northwest, filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying the decision was also wrong because it failed to take into account the young defendant’s ability to rehabilitate.
Anderson was 17 when he shot two women, killing one and blinding the other, during a drug bust in Tukwila in 1994. An accomplice also shot and killed a man in the same home.
Anderson was not immediately arrested, but committed other crimes as a youth, including assault and robbery, and wrote letters to girlfriends bragging about the shootings. It wasn’t until 1998, after someone tipped off investigators about the letters, that he was charged.
He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2000 and sentenced to 61 years. After federal and state rulings that children should be treated differently by the justice system, he was granted a new sentencing hearing in 2018. The judge gave him the same term, finding that Anderson had not proven that the shootings reflected “transient immaturity.”
In recent years, the Washington Supreme Court has taken more steps to restrict the sentences that can be imposed on children.
In 2018, judges found it violated the state Constitution to sentence 16- or 17-year-olds to life in prison without parole. This ruling came in the case of Brian Bassett, a white man who killed his parents and brother when he was 16 years old. Bassett has since been sentenced to 28 years.
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Last September, the court overturned a 46-year sentence for Timothy Haag, a white man who was 17 when he drowned his 7-year-old neighbor. In that case, a six-judge majority found that juvenile murder defendants must have “a meaningful opportunity to reintegrate into society after they leave prison.”
However, last month the court rejected Anderson’s request for a new sentence. Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the 5-4 majority that such virtual life sentences for juveniles are barred by the state Constitution only if their crimes “reflect juvenile immaturity, impetuosity, or a lack of appreciation of the risks and consequences”.
Anderson’s was not that case, Stephens said.
The dissenting justices said it made no sense for the court to find a 46-year sentence for a 17-year-old white youth to be an unconstitutional “de facto” life sentence while upholding a 61-year sentence for a 17-year-old black 17 years old.
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Judge Mary Yu wrote that it would be “willfully unconscionable” to conclude that race played no role.
“Bassett and Haag are white. Anderson is black,” Yu wrote. “Bassett and Haag were recognized by this court as ex-offenders capable of redemption and rehabilitation, and were ordered to be sentenced accordingly. Anderson has been denied such recognition and sentence, contrary to law and the tests”.
The King County District Attorney’s Office, which opposed granting Anderson a new sentence, has until Oct. 17 to respond to Anderson’s motion for reconsideration. The office previously urged the justices to overturn the decisions in the Haag and Bassett cases, saying they were decided incorrectly. . Anderson’s youth did not play a role in his crimes, he argued.