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Tuesday, August 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Court upholds life sentence in persistent offender cases, including one for Spokane man

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 15, 2019

OLYMPIA – The Temple of Justice, on the Washington Capitol Campus, is the home of the state Supreme Court. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – The Temple of Justice, on the Washington Capitol Campus, is the home of the state Supreme Court. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A Spokane man who is serving life in prison after his third felony, which is considered a most serious offense, shouldn’t have his sentence reduced because he committed a previous crime as a young adult, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Frederick D. Orr was one of three inmates challenging the state’s three strikes law on the grounds that one or more of their “strikes” happened when they were young adults – older than 18 but younger than 21. A sentence of life without parole in those circumstances violates the state Constitution’s guarantee against excessive fines or cruel punishment, they argued.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled it did not. The sentences for Orr and two others challenging their life terms weren’t imposed for what they did when they were younger, but for their third strike.

“It was their decisions to commit their third most serious offenses that triggered the mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the majority opinion. The three strikes law “gives offenders a chance to show that they can be reformed but petitioners failed to do so.”

Orr was 19 when he demanded money from a one-legged man on a Spokane street, then cut the man with a broken beer bottle and beat him with his crutch when the man refused to give up his bank card. He pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery and was sentenced to six months in jail. Two years later he pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery for threatening two men with a knife and stealing a stereo after the men asked him to leave their apartment; he was sentenced to 50 months in prison for that.

In 2015, at age 41, Orr was homeless and living on the Spokane streets when someone told him about a person holding children against their will in a North Side house and sexually abusing them. Carrying a large metal pipe, he went to a home occupied by a woman and her 2-year-old child to investigate. He tried to break in, but a neighbor saw what was happening and confronted Orr. He swung the pipe at the neighbor, who pointed his handgun at Orr. Eventually, Orr admitted he had the wrong house and dropped the pipe. He was arrested and convicted of burglary and assault, and labeled a persistent offender under the three-strikes law, which requires a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Although his first two “strike” convictions were earlier, Orr has been convicted of a series of other crimes since then, including burglary, harassment and unlawful firearm possession, and had only been out of prison 15 months before he committed his third serious offense, the majority opinion pointed out in a footnote. The two other inmates challenging their sentences, Anthony Moretti, convicted in Grays Harbor County, and Hung Van Nguyen, in King County, also had other convictions before their third strike.

While she agreed that there is currently no constitutional bar to the life-without-parole sentence each received, Justice Mary Yu argued in a concurring opinion that the state should review the system. The court has ruled that capital punishment is unconstitutional and converted all of those sentences to life without parole.

That creates a wider range of crimes a person might commit to serve that sentence, she wrote in the opinion signed by two other justices.

“Persistent offenders who have committed robberies and assaults are now grouped with offenders who have committed the most violent of crimes, including aggravated murder and multiple rapes,” Yu wrote. The state should review whether it has a “just and proportionate sentencing scheme.”

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