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Wa. Appeals Court Says Ballard High Gunman Should Get New Sentencing Hearing

Nicholas K. Geranios
Airway Heights Corrections Center, where Brian Ronquillo is currently incarcerated

More than 20 years ago, a drive-by shooting outside Ballard High School in Seattle left 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes dead. The perpetrator, Brian Ronquillo, also a teenager, was sent to prison for more than 50 years.

Now, the state Court of Appeals says the killer’s age should have been considered. It is another sign that courts are giving more weight to teenage brain development.

Brian Ronquillo was in the passenger seat of a car when he shot at rival gang members and killed an innocent bystander outside Ballard High School in Seattle. Ronquillo was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder.

But, as a 16-year-old, did he fully understand the consequences of his actions?

It is a question that should be asked, says Nick Straley, who works on youth sentencing reform and is a staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services.

“What all parents can see is that teenagers don’t act in ways that we all think would be rational or reasonable and the reason they don’t act that way is because of their brain.” said Straley.

Straley, who is not associated with the Ronquillo case, points to research done in the past 20 years showing that the juvenile brain is structurally different than the adult brain, that things like judgment and the understanding of long term consequences do not fully kick in until someone is in their mid-20s.

He says all you have to do is look at the crime rates.

“Crime spikes at around age 20 and then fall precipitously thereafter.” Straley said.

Courts are acknowledging this development in brain science. The U.S. Supreme Court says sentencing a juvenile to life in prison amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The recent Washington Court of Appeals decision takes that one step further. It says that Brian Ronquillo’s 51-year sentence for the drive-by killing of Melissa Fernandes amounts to a “de facto life sentence” and should be reexamined.

Critics fear rulings like this could mean kids will be able to, literally, get away with murder. But proponents counter that judges will still be able to consider the nature of a crime when handing down a sentence.

“It’s just that the age of the child is also a fundamental element that needs to be considered,” said Straley.

Unless the King County prosecutor appeals the recent decision, Brian Ronquillo, now in his late 30s, could soon be back in court asking the judge to reduce the sentence he was given as a teenager and resentenced to in March of 2014 after a court ruled there were technical flaws with the original sentence.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.