YAKIMA — The state Supreme Court has ruled that a Yakima County man should not be subject to the state’s “three strikes” law calling for a life sentence without parole.
Prosecutors sought to impose the sentence on Jorge Saenz, who was convicted in 2008 of shooting a 14-year-old rival gang member in the back. It was his third felony conviction, which would normally result in a life sentence without parole.
But Superior Court Judge Michael Schwab instead sentenced Saenz to nearly 47 years in prison. Schwab said he was troubled by due process issues regarding Saenz’s first felony conviction at age 15 in Lewis County. In that 2001 case, Saenz waived his right to a hearing in juvenile court and pleaded guilty as an adult to two counts of felony assault. At age 18 he was convicted of a gang-related stabbing.
Rejecting an appeals court decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Schwab.
The Supreme Court based its ruling on a lack of court records beyond signed paperwork indicating Saenz knew the potential consequences of waiving his right to juvenile court in order to receive a lighter sentence in an adult court. The court also chided the Lewis County juvenile court for not holding a decline hearing and accepting Saenz’s waiver without formally considering whether it was in the public’s interest.
“Juvenile court judges are not simply potted palms adorning the courtroom and sitting idly by while parties stipulate to critically important facts,” Justice Charles K. Wiggins wrote in concurrence with five other justices.
Prosecutors appealed Schwab’s ruling under the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, otherwise known as the three strikes law, passed by the Legislature in 1993. In 2010, the state Appeals Court in Spokane found Saenz’s waiver from a juvenile court hearing in 2001 sufficient to count the conviction as his first of three strikes under the law.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice James Johnson wrote Saenz’s waiver, coupled with his signature of a plea agreement stating he understood the consequences of his waiver, were enough to demand a life sentence. Johnson said the Lewis County court was not required to hold a decline hearing because language in Saenz’s waiver also released the court from that requirement.
“The indication of defense counsel in this case that Saenz had come to a full understanding of the effect of the waiver should be sufficient under the circumstances,” Johnson wrote in concurrence with Justice Debra Stephens.
The majority ruled that findings beyond the defendant’s waiver must be entered into the court record to justify transferring the case out of the juvenile system.
“If the judge is unable to enter findings without a hearing, the judge should order a hearing,” Wiggins wrote, adding, “our courts must independently weigh a minor’s critical decision to waive juvenile jurisdiction.”
Statewide, more than 200 repeat offenders have been sentenced to life since Washington state voters passed the country’s first three strikes law in 1993.