The Alaska Court of Appeals says a lower court should reconsider the life sentence meted out to Winona Fletcher, who was 14 when she and a boyfriend shot to death three elderly people in a home invasion that shocked Anchorage in the 1980s.
“I’m hopeful for Winona it’s going to mean that she gets an opportunity to be resentenced,” said Whitney Glover, an attorney who has worked on Fletcher’s appeals case.
In 1985, Fletcher and her 19-year-old boyfriend Cordell Boyd forced their way into a Russian Jack-area home and killed husband and wife Tom Faccio, 69, and Ann Faccio, 70, along with Ann Faccio’s 76-year-old sister, Emelia Elliott.
The brutality of the crime, and Fletcher’s young age, made the crimes a sensation in Anchorage, drawing heavy news coverage with headlines including “Senior citizens gunned down in split level home.” A judge waived Fletcher’s case into adult court, saying she was an unlikely prospect for rehabilitation despite her young age and lack of prior criminal history.
She pleaded no contest to murder charges and was sentenced to 135 years in prison. She was the youngest female ever to be convicted of murder in Alaska.
At her sentencing, the prosecutor said she “(could not) explain how someone by the age of fourteen becomes as evil as Winona Fletcher was but that’s just the way she is.”
The case became a catalyst for Alaska’s victims rights movement. The daughters of Ann and Tom Faccio started Victims for Justice, ushering in the movement in the state. Faccio family members could not be reached Thursday.
The Court of Appeals decision is part of a broader reevaluation of life sentences for juveniles.
In the past 20 years, a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases have reshaped the law when it comes to sentencing children for serious crimes, the Court of Appeals opinion said.
In multiple cases that considered new research on the way young people’s brains work, courts have found that juveniles are more reckless, impulsive and risk-taking than adults, as well as more vulnerable to pressures from others and “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”
That means “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” the ruling said. The new understanding diminishes the justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juveniles “even when they commit terrible crimes,” the ruling said.
Fletcher committed “undeniably terrible crimes,” the appeals court found. But her sentencing judge failed to consider her prospects for rehabilitation. And the judge didn’t consider Fletcher’s chaotic childhood, during which she experienced abuse and neglect — and ended up prostituting herself in Anchorage by the age of 13. When she committed the crimes, she was a runaway, a victim of child sex abuse involved with an adult man who had plied her with drugs starting at age 13, her attorney wrote in an appeals filing. Her verbal IQ tested at 77.
The appeals court decision doesn’t mean Fletcher will necessarily have her sentence reduced. It means the Superior Court must reconsider Fletcher’s sentence under criteria that take into account her youth and vulnerability at the time of the crime, and whether she had prospects for rehabilitation.
“So there’s an opportunity to ask the question — which is raised in the case — that is she ‘permanently incorrigible,’ which is basically something that couldn’t be determined at the age of 14,” Glover said.
The case could ultimately call into question the validity of other Alaskans’ juvenile life sentences. A footnote to the decision says only three other juvenile offenders in Alaska received sentences above 99 years, but others have received lengthy sentences.
Fletcher gave birth to two children while in prison. She is now 53.