For more than 20 years, Jeremiah Bourgeois thought he would die in prison for a homicide he committed in Seattle when he was 14.
Now, after spending more than half his life in prison, the 36-year-old could soon be free following a recent change in the state’s juvenile sentencing law.
In 1992, Bourgeois became the second-youngest person in the state to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he shot and killed a West Seattle convenience-store owner who had testified against Bourgeois’ brother in an assault case. However, state legislation passed earlier this year has banned automatic sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles.
Bourgeois, appearing this afternoon in King County Superior Court in Kent, saw his life sentence amended to a minimum of 25 years to life. As a result, he will be eligible for parole within six months to three years, according to his defense attorney Jeff Ellis.
“I am grateful that I have an opportunity to be released today,” Bourgeois said. “But I don’t want anyone to think I’m not cognizant of the lives that I’ve destroyed.”
The new juvenile sentencing law went into effect June 1 after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found mandatory life sentences for juveniles were cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The ruling didn’t mean that judges cannot hand down such sentences for juvenile killers, but says that judges must also have other sentencing options.
On May 19, 1992, Bourgeois killed Tecle Ghebremichale, 41, who had testified against Bourgeois’ older brother in juvenile court.
After hearing evidence about the crime and about Bourgeois’ lifestyle and criminal history, a juvenile-court judge declined to have him tried as a juvenile. Had he been tried and convicted in juvenile court, Bourgeois could have been imprisoned only until he was 21.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in an interview earlier this week that Bourgeois was tried as an adult because the murder of a witness is considered an attack on the heart of the legal system.
“It was clear retaliation,” Satterberg said. “It’s an assault on the justice system that makes people scared to testify. And if witnesses don’t feel that they are protected, the whole system crumbles.”
In the resentencing proceedings, Satterberg said the prosecutor’s office must balance serving justice for serious crimes and acknowledging emerging science that serves as the basis for the new law.
“Science on the adolescent brain has only been emerging in the last few years,” Satterberg said. “We now know that adolescent brains are not the same as adult brains. They continue to change and develop. This is now the law beginning to respond to that science.”
Bourgeois is one of three defendants convicted in King County affected by the new law.
Under the new legislation, life without parole is still possible for juvenile defendants, but not mandated, for crimes committed by persons 16 or older. However, for defendants like Bourgeois, who kill before reaching the age of 16, the highest sentence a judge may set is a minimum of 25 years to life.