OLYMPIA – A Spokane home-invasion robber cannot be sentenced to life in prison, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday, because one of his “three strikes” offenses took place when he was a juvenile.
Tucero Knippling was one of four people arrested in 2005 after a string of robberies in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. In at least three cases, the robbers kicked open doors, rushed into bedrooms and ordered terrified families to cover their eyes. The homes were apparently chosen at random, police said.
The robbers covered one couple’s heads with pillow cases. In another case, the thieves smashed through a door into a home where a mother and her 5-year-old son were sleeping. One jumped on the mother, still in bed, and threatened her. The robbers took her DVD player, a phone and a box of jewelry.
In November, a jury sentenced Knippling to prison. He was convicted of 10 felony charges, including burglary and robbery.
Knippling’s attorneys successfully argued that he could only be sentenced to about 10 years. But prosecutors argued that he was eligible for life in prison under Washington’s three-strikes law. Knippling’s previous convictions included a 1999 robbery conviction and a 2002 first-degree theft conviction.
Court records indicated that Knippling was 16 years old at the time of the crime he was sentenced for in 1999. The case was moved from juvenile court to superior court because of the severity of the charge: first-degree robbery. A subsequent plea deal reduced it to second-degree robbery.
That lesser crime would normally be handled by juvenile court unless a juvenile court judge decided that Knippling should have been sentenced as an adult. Nothing in the court record indicated that had happened, even though the case stayed in Superior Court.
Knippling was sentenced to 116 months in prison. He is serving time at the state’s Coyote Ridge prison in Connell.
“We affirm the Court of Appeals, concluding that the State has not met its burden of showing the Knippling is a persistent offender” under the three strikes law, Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote in a unanimous opinion released Thursday.
The high court ruling “leaves the sentence in place,” said his attorney, Greg Link with the Washington Appellate Project. The Spokane County Prosecutor’s office had been appealing the case.
“If the state had won, the remedy would have been to go back and get sentenced for life,” Link said. But he argues that Knippling still could have overturned that decision.
“The record was pretty clear that he was a juvenile,” Link said.
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