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Originally published June 25, 2012 at 8:57 PM | Page modified June 26, 2012 at 2:51 PM

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Supreme Court: No automatic life terms for young killers

A U.S. Supreme Court decision could prompt new sentencing hearings, and possibly shorter sentences, for the 26 Washington inmates who were convicted of aggravated first-degree murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Some of Washington state's youngest killers could receive shorter sentences after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles who have been convicted of aggravated murder.

The court ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional for states to have laws that require judges to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The ruling does not mean that judges cannot hand down such sentences for juvenile killers but says that judges must also have other sentencing options.

The ruling also allows judges and juries to consider a juvenile's age when they hand down sentences for some of the harshest crimes, instead of making life in prison without parole automatic.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, noted the justices "hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishment.' " She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The decision could mean sentencing reviews, and possibly shorter prison terms, for the more than two dozen Washington state inmates who were convicted of aggravated murder as juveniles and were automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In a minority dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed that the life sentences constituted "cruel and unusual" punishment.

"Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not 'unusual' for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole," Roberts wrote. "That reality should preclude finding that mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile killers violates the Eighth Amendment."

The ruling — which will affect the 29 states, including Washington, that have mandatory life in prison laws for juvenile offenders — was hailed by public defenders, youth advocates and civil-rights groups.

"This is very encouraging news that the court recognized there is a distinct difference between an adolescent tried as an adult, and someone who is over the age of 18," said Seattle attorney and children's advocate Michelle Shaw.

"When children as young as 14 years of age commit serious violent offenses, including murder, a life sentence is not appropriate," Shaw said. "A child's brain has not yet reached full maturation, and very often there are contributing factors from the child's family."

Currently, there are 26 inmates in Washington state prisons who are serving life sentences after being convicted as juveniles, according to a report from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Two were convicted in King County.

King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said he does not expect the high court's ruling to affect the sentences of those cases.

Satterberg said that even if the two defendants in those cases were granted new sentencing hearings, "Their respective egregious facts will permit a judge to exercise discretion to achieve the same result."

In one case, Alex Baranyi was 17 in 1997 when he and his best friend, 18-year-old David Anderson, killed four members of a Bellevue family. Baranyi told detectives that he and Anderson killed the family to "experience something truly phenomenal."

The second King County case is that of Jeremiah Bourgeois, who was 14 on May 19, 1992, when he killed the 41-year-old owner of a West Seattle convenience store owner who had earlier testified against his older brother in a robbery trial in juvenile court.

Pierce County prosecuting attorney Mark Lindquist said legislators will likely have to alter state law to comply with the Supreme Court's decision.

"They could fix it for future cases and make it retroactive," he said.

He said the ruling's impact on Pierce County's six juvenile offender cases is not clear.

Lindquist said his office will likely fight hard against any reduction in sentence for the six defendants. "All six are horrible, adult-sized crimes where one would expect a life sentence for the offenders," he said.

The Supreme Court's decision came in the separate robbery and murder cases of Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, who were 14 when they were convicted.

Jackson was sentenced to life in prison in Arkansas after the shooting death of a store clerk during an attempted robbery in 1999.

Another boy shot the clerk, but because Jackson was present, he was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery.

Miller was convicted of capital murder during the course of arson. A neighbor, while doing drugs and drinking with Miller and a 16-year-old boy, attacked Miller.

Intoxicated, Miller and his friend beat the man and set fire to his home, killing the 52-year-old. Miller's friend testified against him, and got life in prison with the possibility of parole.

According to data provided to the court, roughly 2,500 people are behind bars for life with no chance of winning their freedom for murders they committed before their 18th birthday.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.

Information from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

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