In a unanimous ruling released on Aug. 15, the Washington state Supreme Court upheld the state's "three strikes" law, which mandates lifelong sentences for defendants convicted of their third serious felony offense, as constitutional — including in cases where people garner "strike" convictions when they're young adults.
The verdict stemmed from three separate challenges to mandatory "third-strike" life sentences without possibility of parole from inmates, all of whom argued that it was unconstitutional to give them life sentences when they received their first "strike" conviction when they were young adults between the ages of 18 and 21. All of the inmates were labeled as "persistent offenders,"
One the inmates, Frederick Del Orr, pled guilty to second-degree robbery in Spokane County when he was 19-years-old for allegedly beating a man with one leg in downtown Spokane with his crutch and hitting him with a glass bottle after the man refused to give Orr his bank card. A few years later, he pled guilty to another second-degree robbery charge at age 21. When he was 41 and living on the streets of Spokane, Orr was convicted of first-degree burglary and second-degree assault after allegedly breaking into a home where he thought children were being abused and swinging at a neighbor's head with a metal pipe. This "third strike" conviction garnered him life without possibility of parole, under state law.
Another inmate, Hung Van Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam who moved to the U.S. in 1990, was convicted of first-degree burglary when he was 20-years-old. At 39, he pled guilty to second-degree assault by strangulation after putting his hands on his sister's throat during an argument. When he was 41, a jury convicted him of first and second-degree assault for repeatedly stabbing a female friend and one other person at her apartment.
In the ruling, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst writes that the state Constitution "does not require a categorical bar on sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for fully developed adult offenders who committed one of their prior strikes as young adults."
"We also hold that the sentences in these cases are not grossly disproportionate to the crimes," the opinion goes on to state. "In our own independent judgment, the concerns applicable to sentencing juveniles do not apply to adults who continue to reoffend after their brains have fully developed."
While the court acknowledged research cited by the inmates that human brain development continues well into a person's 20s and that children are less "criminally culpable" than adults, they also argued that the inmates are ultimately responsible for their most recent offenses — which occurred well into adulthood. (They also noted that the state's three-strikes law does not cover juvenile convictions.)
"These petitioners are fully developed adults who were repeatedly given opportunities to prove they could change," the ruling states. "The petitioners failed to do so."
However, Justice Mary Yu authored a separate concurring opinion, criticizing mandatory sentencing laws and her "growing discomfort" with the "routine practice of sentencing individuals to life without possibility of parole, regardless of the offense or the age of the offender."
She argued that, with court's recent move to strike down the death penalty in Washington in 2018, life without possibility for parole is now the most severe sentence in the state and that routine offenders who committed robberies are now treated the same as those who commit "the most violent of crimes," such as rapes and aggravated murder. The shift requires "serious examination" of Washington's mandatory sentencing practices to "ensure a just and proportionate sentencing scheme."
Yu also pushed back on the notion that adult repeat offenders are incapable of rehabilitation.
"Life without parole sentences represent a 'denial of hope'; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial'," she writes. "There are adults who are also deserving of leniency and an individualized inquiry as to their level of culpability and capacity for rehabilitation. A judge cannot measure at sentencing an individual's capacity for change."
Read the full ruling here: