Life sentence for murder when he was a teen cut to 42 years

EVERETT — A man who as a teenager two decades ago snuffed out the lives of an Everett mother and her 12-year-old daughter learned Wednesday that he likely won’t see freedom until he’s in his 50s, at the earliest.

Brandon Backstrom must serve a minimum 42 years in prison for the killings he committed at 17, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair said. Her decision brought clarity to the case after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling undermined Backstrom’s earlier sentence of life in prison without parole.

Backstrom, now 36, appears to have matured and improved himself during the 20 years he’s already spent behind bars, Fair said. But that doesn’t erase what he did.

“The underlying facts of these murders are particularly horrifying,” the judge said.

Backstrom was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in the November 1997 slayings of Marnie Walls, 30, and her daughter, Korree Olin, of Stanwood. Each received more than 50 knife wounds. Walls, who was near death from long-term health problems, also was bludgeoned with a large pair of wire cutters.

The pair were killed to leave no witnesses to a robbery that netted some jewelry and cigarettes. Backstrom was tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the crimes. Upon conviction, a life sentence was the only punishment possible under the law.

Then, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Washington’s law was amended in 2014 to reflect the high court’s ruling. Those who commit aggravated murder between the ages of 16 and 18 now face a minimum of 25 years behind bars. They still can be sentenced to life without parole, but only after a judge considers the individual circumstances of the case and the defendant’s life.

Fair on Wednesday made clear her hope is the sentence will stand this time. She took pains to list all of the information she’d considered, and the people she’d listened to, before reaching a decision on Backstrom’s punishment.

Among those who spoke were relatives of the victims.

Marnie Walls was struggling with illness and had recently been told that she likely only had a few months left, Fair was told. Her daughter was visiting that weekend so the young mother would have an opportunity to share the sad news.

The slayings were discovered by family, including Walls’ son, then just 10.

Casey Walls now has a family of his own. He told Fair he’s never fully shaken the shock or fear that Backstrom could harm other loved ones.

“Keeping him in will keep me at peace,” he said.

Backstrom was represented in the hearing by two public defenders, Paul Thompson and Fred Moll.

Thompson told Fair he was in an unusual position: a defense attorney compelled by circumstances to advocate punishment for a client who agrees that is appropriate.

The murders that led to Backstrom’s conviction can’t be minimized, the attorney said. At the same time, his client has changed over the years, and for the better.

“He’s simply not the kid who committed these most heinous acts,” Thompson said.

He urged Fair to sentence Backstrom to a minimum of roughly 30 years, the same punishment handed down to Backstrom’s co-defendant in the case. That man, who was 22 at the time of the murders, provided testimony that helped send Backstrom to prison.

Deputy prosecutor Matt Hunter told the judge how, in preparation for the hearing, he took advantage of a defense offer to meet with Backstrom at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. That’s the prison where the defendant has spent most of the past two decades, by all reports a model inmate.

Backstrom was likeable, polite and appeared to show genuine remorse, Hunter said. If set free, he doubted the man would reoffend.

But that’s only one consideration, the prosecutor said. He argued the defendant’s acts still demand punishment, particularly when he’s yet to take full responsibility for his victims’ fatal injuries. He recommended a minimum 40-year sentence.

The judge told the victims’ family she was sorry legal questions about the case had again brought their pain to a courtroom.

As things stand, Backstrom should remain locked up for roughly 20 more years, and then his freedom isn’t guaranteed. Decades from now, he will have to convince the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board that his release would be appropriate.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee speaks with special ed Pre-K teacher Michelle Ling in her classroom at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash. Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)
Governor: Educators are now eligible for coronavirus vaccine

“This should give educators more confidence,” Jay Inslee said. Other frontline workers could soon be next.

A view of the courtyard leading to the main entrance of the new Stanwood High building on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020 in Stanwood, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Law gives Washington high school seniors leeway to graduate

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that can waive some requirements for students who were on track before the pandemic.

About a dozen metal dinosaurs sit in the front yard of a home owned by Burt Mason and Mary Saltwick on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021 in Freeland, Washington. The couple are used to finding strangers in their yard and taking photos. Every year on their trip to Tucson, Burt and Mary bring home another figure  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Dinos on Whidbey? This Freeland yard is a Jurassic Park

These creatures from long ago won’t chomp or chase you, and you’re welcome to visit.

Maryville Getchell High School students Madison Dawson, left, Kaden Vongsa and Jenasis Lee, who made a presentation to their school board discussing mental health, lack of resources and personal stories of their peers mental health struggles. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Students plead for better mental health support from schools

Three Marysville Getchell seniors want more counselors and improved training for staff.

Parked tractor-trailers line the side of 40th Avenue NE on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 in Marysville, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Worker wonders why dead end Marysville road is rough and rutty

A stretch of 40th Avenue NE is mostly used for heavy trucking and isn’t in line for repairs soon.

Camano Island shooting leaves father dead; son arrested

Dominic Wagstaff, 21, was taken into custody late Sunday for investigation of the murder of Dean Wagstaff, 41.

Jean Shumate (left), seen here during a February 2019 school board meeting, will retire June 30 after 20 years at the Stanwood-Camano School District superintendent. (Skagit Valley Herald)
Stanwood-Camano superintendent to retire after 20 years

Jean Shumate has been at the helm longer than any other superintendent in Snohomish County.

A boy raises his hand during a lesson at Starbright Early Learning Center on Friday, June 5, 2020 in Everett. The Snohomish County Council is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure that would add early learning centers to a spending plan for the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)
County Council proposes to address a big pre-K learning gap

Members are rethinking how to spend earmarked education money to “make a real difference.”

Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Sunset Falls cascades down past the existing fish ladder along the Skykomish River east of Index, February 4, 2014.
Photo taken 20140214
New hatchery on Skykomish to end practice of importing fish

A plan to capture fish from Sunset Falls near Index and release them in the river is open for public comment.

Most Read