Washington Court of Appeals Affirms LWOP Sentence for Defendant Who Committed Offenses at Age 19

Above: Michael Lauderdale. (The Wenatchee World)

A Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the mandatory life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence of Michael Randall Lauderdale on December 24, 2020. Lauderdale appealed on the basis that he should have been given a lower sentence because he was 19 years old at the time of his offense. The court affirmed his sentence, yet one judge wrote a concurring opinion arguing that 19-year-olds should not be sentenced to mandatory LWOP.

Lauderdale was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder for offenses he committed in 1994 at 19 years old. He was sentenced to mandatory LWOP and was later resentenced, also to mandatory LWOP. “Relying on a number of United States Supreme Court and Washington decisions that consider current brain science in applying constitutional and statutory provisions to criminal sentencing” he appealed and asserted that the trial court had discretion to impose a lesser sentence than LWOP.

The court observed that “It can be argued from current brain science that Mr. Lauderdale’s offense conduct might be partially explained by brain immaturity similar to the juvenile offenders in the cases on which he relies.” However, the court stated that the Washington state provision preventing mandatory LWOP for juveniles consistent with the ruling in Miller v. Alabama “plainly does not apply to Mr. Lauderdale, who was approaching 19 years and 8 months old when he murdered [the victim]” and that the U.S. Supreme Court “has consistently drawn a bright line at age 18 for youth-based limitations on sentencing discretion.”

The opinion did note that previously, the Washington state Supreme Court held that “youth can qualify as a mitigating factor… even for defendants who commit crimes at age 18 or older, and even absent evidence that the defendant’s youth actually affected his actions.” However, since Lauderdale’s LWOP sentence was mandatory, the court did not have discretion to apply this.

Accordingly, the court affirmed Lauderdale’s sentence, though the opinion noted that his argument “relies on brain science that might ultimately persuade the Washington Legislature (for statutory purposes) or lead to a consensus (for federal and state constitutional purposes) that characteristics of his 19 year and 8 month brain at the time he murdered [the victim] entitle him to resentencing.”

One judge concurred, arguing that a bright line should not be drawn at age 18, though acknowledging that Lauderdale’s sentence must be affirmed according to current law.

The judge wrote that “lifetime sentences of juvenile offenders, even when committing a horrible crime, do not further penological goals” and that “[t]he law should be changed” because an LWOP sentence “could depend on whether the crime occurs at the stroke of midnight on the offender’s birthday, rather than at 11:59 p.m. on birthday eve. But the Eighth Amendment abhors such arbitrary sentencing distinctions.”

The judge further asserted that “[i]mmaturity and childishness do not end at age seventeen. The parts of the brain involved in behavioral control continue to develop well into a person’s twenties” and that despite this, “courts have arbitrarily limited the Miller v. Alabama sentencing considerations for youth to those under the age of 18 when prosecuted for murder. This practice follows contemporary society’s drawing of a line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood at 18 years old.”

Finally, the concurring judge noted that even if the courts decide that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows LWOP for young adults, the Washington constitution could and should disallow it.

Citation: State v. Lauderdale, 2020 WL 7664232

Keywords: Washington, Miller v. Alabama, LWOP, adolescent brain, young adult

This post is the 79th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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