Juvenile Sentencing Reform

Barry Massey was 14 when he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the aggravated murder of Paul Wang. Mr. Massey was only 13 when he and an accomplice plotted to rob the Steilacoom Marina. The location had been specifically targeted based on the juvenile’s observation that it was typically only staffed by one worked and was isolated. When the duo arrived at the store they confronted Paul Wang who had owned the store for about four years. Believing Mr. Wang was taking too long to open the register, the boys shot Mr. Wang in the head and stabbed him multiple times. They left him to die and proceeded with robbing the store.

The boys were caught a short time later by Pierce County law enforcement and were separately interrogated without the presence of parents or lawyers. Both boys initially had a similar story of the events though these did change at a later date. The biggest changed was Mr. Massey claiming he had been pressured to engage in the criminal behavior by his accomplice, Michael Harris, who was 15 at the time. During the investigation, it was also discovered that a few days prior to Mr. Wang’s murder, the two boys had robbed and assaulted a 75 year old woman. During the robbery they knocked the woman unconscious and stole the gun they used 16 days later to murder Mr. Wang.

Mr. Massey and Mr. Harris were charged as adults and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Neither individual was ever charged in the assault and robbery of the 75 year old woman – presumably because there would have been little point since both had already been sentenced to the maximum penalty under the law. Both likely expected to spend the rest of their lives behind bars; however, that all changed in 2012 when the United States Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to have mandatory sentences for individuals. In 2014, the Washington State legislature went a step further by enacting a law that allowed juveniles who had been sentenced to life to petition for early release after having spent 25 years in custody. The change in the law affected only 29 individuals in Washington.

When he was sentenced, Mr. Massey was the youngest person in the United States to receive the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. After more than 25 years in custody, he has now been released after a clemency board granted his request for parole. He will still be under community supervision for at least three years which among other things will require him to report to a Department of Corrections officer, maintain sobriety, and not possess any firearms. His co-defendant is set to be released in August.

The early release was contested greatly by Mr. Wang’s family as well as the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Mr. Wang’s family has been outspoken about the unfairness of a process which they feel gave more deference to Mr. Massey’s life than to Mr. Wang’s. They also cite to issues of factual statements made by the board. One of the biggest contentions was Mr. Massey’s exemplary prison record which was cited by his defense as well as the review board in their decision. The family notes that his record was not perfect as he had a romantic relationship with a prison guard who was terminated but apparently never sanctioned for the relationship which was strictly against regulations. The two later married while Mr. Massey was still in custody.

Mr. Massey’s case is one of many around the country that has been fueling the debate about juvenile sentencing reform. The current research concludes what many have suspected for a long time – teenage brains are not the same as adult brains. In an article published a few years ago on NPR, the author succinctly summarizes some of the major differences between teenage and adult brains which largely relates to the frontal lobes not being fully connected to the rest of the brain and underdeveloped. This is especially important in criminal cases because one of the functions of the frontal lobes is to help people understand emotions and how their actions might impact others. With this in mind, the debate then becomes how fair is it to hold teenagers equally responsible as adults for their actions when the functionality of the brain is so different.

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