Hundreds of murder cases will likely be sent back to superior courts across the state for review, following a Washington State Supreme Court opinion yesterday that vacated convictions in 13 cases in which assaults formed the basis for the murder charges.
The ruling, which was unanimous, clarifies the effect of a 2002 high-court ruling that struck down part of the state's felony-murder law and overturned the conviction of Shawn Andress, who had been charged with second-degree felony murder after unintentionally killing Edvind Foster during a barroom brawl in West Seattle in 1994.
In Washington, prosecutors had been allowed to win a murder conviction if a death was an unintended result of assault. Around the country, such cases more typically bring a charge of manslaughter, which carries a lighter sentence.
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Andress case — that assault can't be used as the basis for a felony murder conviction and therefore shouldn't be considered separately — prompted concerns among prosecutors about a possible ripple effect, and hope among defense lawyers and their clients.
Much of the confusion, though, ended with yesterday's ruling in the case of 13 petitioners.
"The petitioners claim that they were convicted of a nonexistent crime and therefore their judgments and sentences are invalid on their face. We agree," Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the court's opinion.
Because the ruling in the Andress case applies retroactively, hundreds of cases now will be reviewed. There could be new trials, for instance, or some of those serving time could withdraw their guilty pleas.
After the Andress ruling, the state Legislature rewrote the law to allow assault to be a basis for a felony murder charge. The court ruling applies only to cases prior to that change.
Mark Larson, chief criminal deputy in the King County Prosecutor's Office, said 99 people convicted of felony murder involving assault in King County are in custody. About 200 more convictions are in question statewide.
Those convicted would file petitions with the court in which they were convicted, Larson said. After that, prosecutors would decide whether to file other charges — such as first-degree murder, or manslaughter, depending on the case. In some cases, they expect to enter into new plea bargains with defendants.
Not everyone convicted of felony murder with assault as the underlying basis is expected to take advantage of the ruling, Larson said. Defendants who originally had been charged with first-degree murder, for example, but pleaded guilty to felony second-degree murder, may decide they would be risking a longer sentence.
"We're not shocked here today about this," Larson said of the ruling. In comparison to the Andress decision, which upset a law that prosecutors had relied on since 1975, yesterday's decision was more like "housekeeping," he said.
Still, "we feel terrible," he said. "We argued, we hoped and we prayed that [the Andress decision] would not apply to the hundreds of cases that were adjudicated."
Among the 13 convicted murderers who made up the Supreme Court case is Jason Twyman. He was convicted of felony murder after beating a friend, Joey Levick, in 1994, leaving him in a ditch where he died. Twyman was sentenced in King County Superior Court to 25 years.
"It's fundamentally unconstitutional for someone to be convicted of a crime that does not exist," said Twyman's lawyer, Jeffrey Ellis. "Jason Twyman has been in prison for the last 10 years on a crime that doesn't even exist."
Ellis said the victory for Twyman should not be taken as a diminishment of the crime, or the hurt that the case continues to cause Levick's loved ones.
But added pain for such families is inevitable, said Ellen Hanegan-Cruse, program coordinator for the state's Office of Crime Victims Advocacy.
The ruling may, in many cases, force families to again sit across the room from a loved one's killer, and call upon witnesses to come forward again.
Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com