Killer, convicted at 17, seeks to shorten his sentence

EVERETT — Brandon Dale Backstrom was 17 when he headed off to prison to begin serving what was supposed to be a life sentence for the murders of an Everett woman and her 12-year-old daughter.

On Tuesday, he was back in Snohomish County Superior Court for what may be a shot at one day regaining freedom.

Backstrom, now 36, was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in the November 1997 killings of Marnie Walls, 30, and her daughter, Korree Olin of Stanwood. Both were stabbed dozens of times with kitchen knives. Walls also was bludgeoned with a large pair of wire cutters.

The motive, according to prosecutors, was to leave no witnesses to a robbery that netted some jewelry and cigarettes.

Backstrom’s co-defendant was his cousin, then 22. That man cut a deal and testified against Backstrom in exchange for what turned out to be a nearly 30-year sentence.

Backstrom, who was tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime, received a mandatory sentence of life in prison after jurors found him guilty of aggravated murder.

His attorneys are now arguing that he should receive a sentence identical to the one handed down to his accomplice all those years ago.

“In no way is Brandon Backstrom minimizing the crime of conviction in this case. What he is asking the court to do though is to treat similarly situated individuals, co-defendants, in the same manner,” defense attorneys Paul Thompson and Fred Moll said in court papers.

Backstrom’s case was handled in accordance with the law as it existed at the time of his prosecution. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 15 years later 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.

That’s the purpose of the hearing that began Tuesday before Judge Ellen Fair.

A similar hearing last year led to a life sentence being set aside for Michael Skay, who committed a 1995 murder at 16. Skay now is looking at a minimum 32-year sentence, meaning he has about a decade before he is eligible to petition for his release.

Backstrom’s attorneys have presented Fair with reports that describe him as a “very immature, poorly controlled adolescent” at the time of the killings. They say he’s grown into a mature adult who has managed to remain largely free of trouble during the nearly two decades he’s spent behind bars.

Backstrom’s home environment was described as “chaotic, dysfunctional, and volatile.” He often would stay with relatives when his parents’ arguments became violent, Janell Wagner, a mitigation specialist, testified Tuesday. He ran away to live with his grandparents at the age of 12. He was found and brought back home.

In court papers, deputy prosecutor Matt Hunter said he’ll likely recommend a 40-year minimum sentence, but first wants to hear and consider the information the defense plans to present.

“It makes no sense for the prosecution to make a partially-informed sentencing recommendation to this court,” he wrote.

He also rejected the premise behind suggesting Backstrom and his co-defendant deserve the same punishment.

The other man cooperated with investigators and “spared the victims’ families and loved ones significant pain and agony that goes along with trials and appeals; the defendant did not,” he wrote.

What Backstrom did also can’t be ignored, Hunter added. Each of the victims suffered more than 50 knife wounds.

Backstrom’s co-defendant “did not inflict the injuries — instead he ran away,” Hunter added.

Reporter Caitlin Tompkins contributed to this story.

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

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