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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Sentenced To Life As A Teen, Barry Massey Walks Free

Washington DOC
Barry Massey was the youngest person sent to prison for life in the United States. He's now been released from prison under a 2014 Washington state law that presumes the release of juvenile killers after 25 years behind bars.

At age 15, Barry Massey walked into the Monroe Corrections Center to begin to serve a life sentence. The year was 1988. At the time, Massey was the youngest person in the United States sentenced to life without parole. On Tuesday, Massey walked out of that same prison a free man.

"I gave my wife a big hug and gave my mom a big, extended hug," Massey said by phone.

Massey, now 42, is the first juvenile lifer in Washington to benefit from a 2014 state law that presumes release after 25 years behind bars.

"The crime was terrible, of course,"  Massey said. "But I think 28 years was too long for me ... some leniency should be given ... when you're that age."

13 years old at time of crime

Massey was 13 in January 1987 when he and an older accomplice shot and stabbed to death Steilacoom marina owner Paul Wang.

Both teens were sentenced to life without parole. In 2006, and again in 2010, Massey sought clemency from then-Governor Chris Gregoire. He withdrew his second petition in 2012 after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, outlawed mandatory life without parole for juveniles on the grounds that it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Following that decision, the Washington legislature in 2014 changed state law to allow juvenile lifers to petition for release after 25 years behind bars. The law presumes release unless the state's Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB) finds the individual is "more likely than not" to commit a new crime.

Motivating both the Supreme Court and the Washington legislature, at least in part, was developing brain science that shows differences between juvenile and adult brains, especially as it relates to impulse control and a juvenile's ability to predict the consequence of their actions.

Massey's case was the first to be reviewed under the new state law and last June the ISRB granted him conditional release. "In his hearing you could just see this is not the 13-year-old who killed that man," then-ISRB chair Lynne DeLano said. "It was a brutal murder, but ... this is a man who has changed his life around. He's changed."

Victim's family opposed release

The family of Massey's victim did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the family has long opposed Massey's release. In 2010, Paul Wang's widow Shirley begged the state's clemency board to keep Massey locked up.

"Why should this murderer be given the chance to have something that he took away from me and my two children," she asked.

In a statement, Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist offered empathy for the Wang family "who are still struggling with the violent loss of a loved one." Lindquist went on to say, "I hope Mr. Massey uses this second chance to be a productive member of the community."

Massey will live with his wife Rhonda, a former correctional officer he met and married while incarcerated. Massey said he hopes to work with juveniles to help them learn from his experiences.

Asked what it was like to go to adult prison as a 15-year-old, Massey said he was scared. He had his own cell, but had to take showers with the adult inmates. "Communal showers and just going through all this was devastating mentally for me," Massey said, adding that people protected him and he wasn't victimized.

Today, an offender that young would not be put in the adult population.

The ISRB said Washington state had 29 prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Massey's older accomplice, Michael Harris, is scheduled to be released this August.