Washington State Supreme Court Finds Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences Unconstitutional for Offenders Younger Than 21
Arthur Schoen, CLS ’22
On March 11, 2021, Washington became the first state to extend the constitutional protection against mandatory life sentences without parole to individuals older than 18. In a ground-breaking 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court of Washington held that the state’s aggravated murder statute, which carries a mandatory penalty of life without parole for adult offenders, was unconstitutional as applied to individuals between the ages of 18 and 21.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to individuals younger than 18, finding that such statutes violate the Eight Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments. Instead, said the court, judges sentencing minor defendants must be allowed to exercise their discretion to craft an individualized sentence that considers the mitigating qualities of youth – though the judge still may assign the full range of non-death-penalty punishments, including a sentence of life without parole. In 2018, the Washington Supreme Court took this even further, barring any sentences of life without parole for minors.
Washington’s aggravated murder statute – amended in 2014 to fit with Miller’s guidelines – provides for a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for anyone aged 18 and older who is convicted of aggravated murder in the state of Washington, and a range of possible penalties for minors.
In this case, Washington’s Supreme Court held that under both the Eight Amendment and Washington’s state constitutional prohibition on cruel punishments, the holding of Miller should be extended to cover convicted murderers aged 18-20 as well. The court provided several grounds for this landmark ruling. The court cited neuroscience research indicating that there is no meaningful difference in maturity between 17 and 18-year-olds, and that mental development continues into a person’s 20s. Though no other state has banned mandatory life without parole for offenders aged 18-20, the court cited criminal statutes from several other states that provide for differentiated penalties for individuals in their 20s on account of their youth. The court also pointed out that the age of majority in the United States used to be 21, and that some states continue to use 21 as the cut-off point; moreover, even Washington’s own laws feature flexibility in different contexts regarding at what age a child becomes an adult.
In a dissenting opinion here, Justice Susan Owens strongly disagreed with the court’s extension of the Miller rule. Pointing out the many contexts in which 18-year-olds are considered adults by the law, Justice Owens argued that there are no grounds to distinguish between youthful adults and other adults for purposes of mandatory minimum sentences. In addition to various constitutional arguments, the dissent contended that the determination of adulthood is best left to a legislature – which has the capacity to review all the necessary evidence and considerations – rather than a court, which is “insufficiently equipped to decide this issue on selectively presented evidence put forth by limited parties on a constrained schedule.”
The two petitioners in this case were both convicted of brutal murders and sentenced to life without parole under Washington’s aggravated murder statute. The first, Dwayne Bartholomew, was convicted in 1981 for shooting the attendant of a gas station he was robbing; he was 20 years old. The second, Kurtis Monschke, participated in the vicious group murder of a homeless person as part of an initiation into a white supremacist gang. He was 19 when he committed that murder and he was convicted in 2003. In granting their petition, the court ordered that Bartholomew and Monschke would each receive a new sentencing hearing that takes into account the petitioners’ ages at the time they committed those murders.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether other states and courts might consider following Washington’s lead and doing away with mandatory sentences of life without parole for offenders aged 18-20. Though there have been voices arguing for such measures in the years since the Supreme Court’s Miller decision, courts have not proven receptive to the argument until now, as numerous petitions citing Miller to argue for reconsideration of sentences given to 18-20-year-olds have been denied. In 2018, the federal court in the District of Connecticut actually did grant one such petition, vacating a mandatory life without parole sentence for an 18-year-old as unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment; however, the Second Circuit overturned that holding on appeal last year. Now that Washington has come down strongly in favor of the efforts to extend Miller to the 18-20 age bracket, perhaps the legislatures and courts in other jurisdictions might be more willing to follow suit.
 In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *43 (Mar. 11, 2021) (Owens, J., dissenting). See also Gene Johnson, Court Overturns Automatic Life Sentences for Young Killers, Seattle Times (Mar. 11, 2021), https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/washington-state-supreme-court-overturns-automatic-life-sentences-for-young-killers/.
 In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 (Mar. 11, 2021).
 Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012).
 See U.S. Const. Amend. VIII.
 Miller, 567 U.S. at 489.
 State v. Bassett, 192 Wn.2d 67 (2018).
 Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *18 n.15.
 Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 10.95.030 (2015).
 Wash. Const. Art. I, § 14.
 Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *7-*8, *29.
 Id. at *19.
 Id. at *19-*20.
 See supra note 1.
 In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *8 n.8 (Mar. 11, 2021).
 Id. at *9.
 Id. at *10 n.9.
 Id. at *16-*18.
 Id. at *30-31 (J. Owens, dissenting).
 Id. at *31 (J. Owens, dissenting).
 Id. at *2. See also Richard Carelli, High Court Reinstates Tacoma Man’s Murder Conviction, Associated Press (Oct. 10, 1995), https://apnews.com/article/16469a0184bfe4e74ecac1a31d8f73b9.
 In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *2 (Mar. 11, 2021). See also Jeffrey M. Barker, White Supremacist Gets Life for Killing Homeless Man, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 1, 2004) (updated Mar. 15, 2011), https://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/White-supremacist-gets-life-for-killing-homeless-1146209.php.
 Monschke, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 152 at *29.
 See, e.g., Emily Powell, Underdeveloped and Over-Sentenced: Why Eighteen- to Twenty-Year-Olds Should Be Exempt from Life Without Parole, 52 U. Rich. L. Rev. Online 83 (2018). See also Juvenile Sentencing Project, Consideration of Youth for Young Adults (Jan. 2020), https://juvenilesentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/model_reforms_consideration_of_youth_for_young_adults.pdf.
 See, e.g., Meas v. Lizarraga, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184672 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 14, 2016); see further Cruz v. United States, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52924 at *41 (D. Conn. Mar. 29, 2018) (listing several cases). See also, however, State v. Norris, 2017 WL 2062145 at *5 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 15, 2017) (the court recognized that mandatory life without parole might not give 21-year-olds the opportunity for full consideration of mitigating age-related factors).
 Cruz, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52924 at *41 (D. Conn. Mar. 29, 2018).
 Cruz v. United States, 826 F. App’x 49 (2d Cir. 2020).