TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A man sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role as a 16-year-old in Pierce County’s worst mass shooting might one day be released after he was resentenced due to a change in the law about mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
The News Tribune reports that John Phet, now 39, was one of the gunmen in the 1998 Trang Dai Cafe massacre in Tacoma, in which five people were killed and five others were injured.
On Oct. 30, Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh sentenced Phet to 25 years to life, which means the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board will decide when or if he’ll be released.
Phet was convicted of five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and five counts of first-degree assault in 2002, and, at the time, the only sentence available was life without parole. Phet, one of six charged and convicted, was the youngest participant.
The law about such sentences for youths has since changed. The U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama said mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The state’s response in 2014 was to change Washington law to allow such defendants to be re-sentenced, with hearings that take their youth into account.
If a judge at re-sentencing finds life without parole isn’t appropriate for someone who was 16 or 17 at the time of their crime, the minimum sentence that a judge can give is 25 years to life, with the state review board determining the end date.
Phet and another man were told to shoot anyone who came out the back door, which is how 21-year-old waitress Tuyen Vo was killed.
“Mr. Phet is alive today,’’ deputy prosecutor Jim Schacht told the court. “She is not. This is the worst mass shooting that Pierce County has had, and that part of this case needs to be taken into account.’’
Schacht also acknowledged that Phet has been a “model prisoner.’’
By video, Jeremiah Bourgeois told the court he’s known Phet for about 10 years, and that they met while Bourgeois was serving life without parole. He was in prison for more than 27 years, he said, starting at the age of 14.
Bourgeois said he was recently released and is studying law at Gonzaga University, “in large part due to’’ Phet’s positive influence.
Phet himself said: “I understand and I take full responsibility’’ for the crimes.
He talked about the impact of others who supported him behind bars and encouraged him to get an education.
He said he knows he can’t “erase the pain of the families.’’
“I’m sorry,’’ Phet said