Barry Massey's Fate Lies with U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Life Sentence for Juveniles

Barry Massey.jpg
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday debated whether juvenile murderers should be given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. It's a debate that affects not only the teenagers at the center of two cases heard by the court, but also Washington state's Barry Massey, locked up for a crime he committed when he was 13.

At issue is whether a life sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for a teen, as the attorney for Arkansas' Kuntrell Jackson and Alabama's Evan Miller argued before the court. The Supremes have already ruled out the death sentence for juveniles, and nixed life sentences without parole in non-murder cases. So these newest cases ask the judges to take their reasoning one step further.

Jackson's case, in particular, is eerily similarly to Massey's. Describes NPR's Nina Totenberg:

Fourteen-year-old Kuntrell Jackson and two other kids held up a video rental store. One of the other boys pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the cashier, and when she threatened to call the police, shot and killed her. Under Arkansas' felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the triggerman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Massey (pictured as a teen above) also participated in a robbery-turned-murder and claims that his partner in crime did the actual killing. Co-defendant Michael Harris claims the opposite. But at least one prominent supporter, Richard Mitchell, former chief counsel to Governor Chris Gregoire, backs Massey's version of events.

As in Jackson's case, though, it ultimately didn't matter in the eyes of the law whether Massey was the killer or accomplice. He was convicted of aggravated murder and, like Jackson, subject to a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole.

Mitchell, now in private practice, says there is one crucial difference between the Jackson and Massey case. "Massey was developmentally delayed," the attorney stresses to SW. Indeed, as we related in a cover story back in 2007, Massey couldn't even sort objects by color or shape at 13. Mitchell argues that makes his life sentence even more inappropriate.

Massey has tried twice for clemency and been rebuffed, the second time in part because of his perceived "error in judgment" in starting a relationship with a prison guard, whom he subsequently married. Rhonda Massey, now a public defense investigator, tells SW that her husband plans to try the state Clemency and Pardons Board again in a few years. But she also says she's "very hopeful" that the Supremes might make that route unnecessary.

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