Barry Massey's Life Sentence Rendered Unconstitutional, But Fate Is Still Uncertain

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On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers. Among the 26 Washington state prisoners who now have hope of seeing the outside world is Barry Massey, thought to be the youngest person in the entire nation to be locked up for the rest of his life.

As we've reported over the years, Massey was involved in a 1987 robbery-turned-murder when he was 13. Afraid of the dark and unable to sort objects by color or shape, his developmental age was even younger.

That's one of the reasons Richard Mitchell, former general counsel to Governor Chris Gregoire, and a host of others have lobbied for clemency for Massey. But that hasn't led to his freedom, which is why some of his supporters have been eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Supreme court case.

"To say the least, I"m very pleased," Mitchell, now in private practice, tells SW.

Yet, while Massey's sentence is rendered unconstitutional by the ruling, his fate is less certain. Like the approximately 2,000 the prisoners nationwide who are in the same situation, Massey is eligible to be re-sentenced. But he could potentially be sentenced to life without possibility of parole once again.

The Supremes only said the mandatory imposition of such a sentence was unconstitutional, leaving judges no room to consider a defendant's age. The judges did not address the question of whether life sentences per se are unconstitutional for juveniles.

What's more, it's not even certain that Massey will seek re-sentencing. "We are weighing our options," says Massey's attorney Beth Colgan, who declines to divulge what those options are.

Mitchell elaborates that Massey may not have to be re-sentenced because he still has a shot at clemency. In an emotional 2010 hearing, the state Clemency and Pardons Board voted to recommend against granting Massey clemency, even though it voted just the opposite three years prior. Board members who changed their mind cited Massey's relationship with a prison guard, who ultimately resigned and married Massey.

The board doesn't get the final say, however. The governor does, and Massey's clemency petition is still on Gregoire's desk. Mitchell says he believes the Supreme Court ruling will give the governor more reason to look at Massey's petition in a favorable light. Mitchell adds that he'll likely submit a new brief to the Gregoire making that case.

Meanwhile, Massey's onetime co-defendant, Michael Harris, also has a pending clemency petition. He was two years older than Harris at the time of the crime, and in part for that reason has not gotten as much attention as Massey.

Just this past weekend, supporter Alan Jutte, who got to know Harris while working as a prison volunteer, sent out an e-mail asking people to sign a petition backing clemency for his friend. Now, Jutte says he's beginning to think about other legal steps, made all the more difficult by Harris' lack of a lawyer.

"I'm not quite sure how the process will work, and I expect a lot of work will have to be done," he says. Even so, he adds, "I practically had to be peeled off the ceiling when I heard the ruling."

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