On September 23, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court decided State v. Haag and vacated the 46-year sentence imposed on Timothy Haag for slowly strangling and drowning a seven-year-old girl, Rachel Dillard, when he was 17.[1] The state supreme court ordered the lower court to resentence Haag because it “gave undue emphasis to retributive factors over mitigating factors” and because “Haag’s 46-year minimum term amounts to an unconstitutional de facto life sentence.”[2] The opinion was written by Justice Helen Whitener and was joined in full by Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez and Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Mary Yu, Susan Owens, and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.[3]

When Haag murdered Dillard in 1994, it was not yet unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced to mandatory life without parole—a holding the United States Supreme Court laid down in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama[4]—and Haag received a mandatory life sentence.[5] After Miller, the state of Washington enacted “Miller-fix” laws requiring juvenile offenders like Haag to be re-sentenced considering “mitigating factors that account for the diminished culpability of youth.”[6] In 2018, Haag was resentenced to 46 years.[7]

During Haag’s re-sentencing, the trial court heard victims’ statements and uncontroverted evidence from Haag about his childhood and his efforts while incarcerated to improve himself.[8] It weighed

a multiplicity of factors, which include a vile, cowardly, and particularly heinous multi-step strangulation and drowning of a defenseless, sixty-five pound little girl committed by a three hundred pound, seventeen-year-old young man that resulted in a conviction for aggravated murder in the first degree[,] . . . the then-youthful brain of Mr. Haag with diminished decision-making capacity, who simultaneously lived through some very difficult circumstances while still enjoying a supportive relationship and activities . . . [and that Haag] has exhibited a stellar track record in prison and has been assessed as a low risk for violently re-offending.[9]

Two years later, in State v. Delbosque, the state supreme court held that re-sentencing hearings must be “forward-looking,” focusing more on rehabilitation than on the nature of the crime.[10]

Based on Delbosque, the court held that Haag’s re-sentencing court “clearly misapplied the law because it emphasized retribution over mitigation.”[11] The court then said that a re-sentencing court “must place greater emphasis on mitigation factors than on retributive factors.”[12] Retribution must “play[] a minor role.”[13]

The court found that the re-sentencing court put too much emphasis on retribution for three reasons. First, the re-sentencing court said that “rehabilitation is not the sole measure of sentencing” and “under the retributive theory, severity of the punishment is calculated by the gravity of the wrong committed.”[14] Second, it weighed the nature of the crime against the mitigating factors.[15] Third, the re-sentencing court heard evidence of Haag’s rehabilitation and considered that he was 17 at the time of crime, but it “primarily focused on the youth of the victim, Rachel Dillard.”[16] The re-sentencing court said that Dillard’s hopes for the future “were obliterated when Miss Rachel was savagely slain by Mr. Haag.”[17] The supreme court characterized this statement as “minimizing Haag’s youth and making a savage of him.”[18]

In sum, the supreme court found the re-sentencing court “founded its resentencing decision on retribution: on the fact that Haag had taken a young life, not on Haag’s youth at the time of the crime or what he has done since his conviction.”[19] Thus, the court vacated the sentence, reiterating that “retributive factors must count for less than mitigating factors.”[20]

Going forward, the court explained, a trial court’s discretion is constrained to “determin[ing] whether and to what extent a juvenile offender has been rehabilitated, whether youthfulness contributed to the crime, and whether he or she is likely to reoffend.”[21] The court vacated the sentence for the additional and independent reason that a 46-year sentence “amounts to a de facto life sentence.”[22] This, in the court’s view, violated the Eighth Amendment under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery v. Louisiana.[23] In Montgomery, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’”[24] In a subsequent case, Jones v. Mississippi,[25] the Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not require a finding that a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing him to life without parole provided it considers his youth,[26] but the Washington Supreme Court did not address that case in reaching its conclusion on this issue.[27] Because the re-sentencing court had found that Haag was “not irretrievably depraved nor irreparably corrupt,” the state supreme court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited a life sentence without parole.[28]

Haag did not receive a sentence of life without parole, but the court reasoned that a 46-year minimum sentence was a “de facto” life sentence because it “results in his losing meaningful opportunities to reenter society and to have a meaningful life.”[29] To determine whether a sentence leads to losing meaningful opportunities for a meaningful life, the court looked to whether technological developments would “make readjustment to life on the outside difficult.”[30] The internet, which in 1995 “was a nascent thing,” and cell phones, which were “for the few who had them, only phones,” had “dramatically changed” the world outside of prison.[31] The court held that keeping Haag in prison for 46 years meant that he would “miss out on the developments of the world” and was thus a de facto life sentence.[32]  It remanded the case and ordered the lower court to resentence Haag.[33] As of publication, he has not yet been resentenced.

Justice Charles Johnson, joined by Justice Barbara Madsen, concurred in the decision but said that it was unnecessary to decide whether the sentence amounted to a de facto life sentence.

Justice Debra Stephens concurred with the first conclusion—that the sentence should be vacated because of the re-sentencing court’s failure to weigh rehabilitative factors more heavily than retributive factors—but dissented as to the second. In her view, the court’s conclusion that a 46-year sentence was unconstitutional conflicted with Jones v. Mississippi.[34] Stephens argued that “Jones retreated from Montgomery’s interpretation of Miller.”[35] The majority decision, she said, “is premised on Montgomery’s now-rejected view that ‘states are not free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole.’”[36] That view, in Justice Stephens’s opinion, “is unsustainable in light of Jones.”[37]

Stephens then argued that, regardless, the majority erred in concluding that a 46-year sentence was a de facto life sentence.[38] In reaching that conclusion, the majority noted that four other states had reached the same conclusion.[39] But none of those cases, Stephens observed, adopted the court’s broad test of losing meaningful opportunities to have a meaningful life.[40] Stephens argued that the cases cited by the majority “stand only for the proposition that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to die in prison unless the sentencing court first considers whether that sentence is appropriate in light of the mitigating qualities of the offender’s youth.”[41] Thus, she dissented from the majority’s conclusion that a 46-year sentence was a de facto life sentence that violated the Eighth Amendment.

[1] State v. Haag, 495 P.3d 241 (Wash. 2021).

[2] Id. at 243.

[3] Id. at 252.

[4] 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

[5] Haag, 495 P.3d at 243.

[6] Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 10.95.030, 10.95.035 (West).

[7] Haag, 495 P.3d at 243.

[8] Id. at 243–44.

[9] Id. at 244–45 (quoting the lower court’s ruling).

[10] 456 P.3d 806, 815 (2020).

[11] Haag, 495 P.3d at 247.

[12] Id. at 245.

[13] Id. at 248.

[14] Id. (quoting the lower court’s order).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 249.

[19] Id. (emphasis in original).

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 250.

[22] Id.

[23] 577 U.S. 190 (2016).

[24] Id. at 724.

[25] 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021).

[26] Id. at 1321.

[27] See Haag, 495 P.3d at 250–52.

[28] Id. at 251.

[29] Id. at 250.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] 141 S. Ct. 1307.

[35] Haag, 495 P.3d at 254 (Stephens, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).

[36] Id. (quoting the majority opinion at 246).

[37] Id.

[38] Id. at 255 (majority opinion).

[39] Id. at 250–51.

[40] Id. at 256 (Stephens, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).

[41] Id.

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