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Grays Harbor murder case leads Supreme Court decision

Originally posted 10-19-19

A split Washington Supreme Court has ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional.

In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the majority affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Brian Bassett, who was convicted in 1996 of three charges of aggravated first-degree murder for fatally shooting his parents and drowning his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub the year before.

Sixteen-year-old Brian Bassett is led by deputies to a Grays Harbor County Courtroom in Montesano, Wash., Friday, March 22, 1996, to hear the verdict in his trial for the murder of his parents and 5-year-old brother. Bassett was found guilty on three counts of aggravated first degree murder for the August, 1995 slayings. (AP Photo/Louie Balukoff)
LOUIE BALUKOFF — AP

Bassett, along with Nicholaus McDonald, was convicted as a 16 year old in the murders .

In June 2012 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles.

In March of 2014, Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5064, which dealt with anyone sentenced to a life sentence as a juvenile.

Brian Bassett from 2012. Photo from DOC.

The court said that when a youth is convicted of murder before the age of 18, the judge must focus on the youth and assess their chances of becoming rehabilitated. The judge can only impose a sentence of life without parole if the judge concludes the sentence “proportionally” punishes the youth, given all of the factors.

In response to that ruling, the Washington Legislature eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles under age 16 convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and required sentencing courts to take into account mitigating factors before sentencing a 16- or 17-year-old. Thursday’s ruling removes that option for 16 and 17 year olds, and sends Bassett’s case back to the trial judge for resentencing.

Under Washington law, aggravated murder is punishable by either a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. As of June 1, youth convictions must be re-evaluated. This includes the conviction for McDonald.

Four justices dissented in the decision this week, saying that the legislative changes made after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling were constitutional.

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