Oregon Supreme Court Upholds 112-Year Sentence for 1998 School Shooter

By Mark Walsh — May 11, 2018 3 min read
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Oregon’s highest court has upheld the 112-year sentence for the perpetrator in a 1998 school shooting that left two students dead and 26 injured.

Kipland P. Kinkel was 15 when he had been sent home from Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., for bringing a gun to school. He shot and killed his mother and father that evening, and the next day, on May 21, 1998, he went to his high school armed with two pistols and a rifle, according to court papers. He warned a friend not to enter the school cafeteria that day, and then shot two students in a school breezeway before entering the cafeteria and firing the rifle multiple times.

Kinkel pleaded guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder. He received four concurrent sentences of 25 years for the murders and sentences of 90 months on each of 26 counts of attempted murder. A trial was held on whether the 90-month sentences should run consecutively or concurrently, with Kinkel’s lawyers presenting mitigating evidence from family members, teachers, and mental health experts. The latter showed that Kinkel had been hearing voices since he was 12 and they concluded that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

The trial court divided each 90-month sentence for attempted murder into two parts—50 months would run consecutively, and 40 months of each count would run concurrently. That meant Kinkel was sentenced to close to 112 years (versus just over 32 years if all counts he faced had run consecutively.)

Kinkel’s sentences were upheld on earlier appeals. Now 35 years old and in prison for 20 years, Kinkel filed a new appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

In its May 10 decision in Kinkel v. Persson, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled 6-1 to uphold the 112-year sentence.

“Given the nature and the number of the crimes that petitioner committed, we are hard pressed to say that his aggregate sentence is constitutionally disproportionate even taking his youth into account,” said the majority opinion by Justice Rives Kistler, who noted that Kinkel killed four people over the course of two days and shot and wounded almost two dozen of his classmates with the intent to kill them.

“He put a gun to another classmate’s head and would have killed him except that the gun ran out of bullets, permitting two students to subdue petitioner before he could shoot anyone else,” Kistler said.

The majority said Kinkel’s case comes within the class of juveniles that, as recognized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller decision, may be sentenced to life without possibility of parole for a homicide. The Miller ruling explained that the Eighth Amendment permits sentencing a juvenile to life without possibility of parole for a single homicide if that crime reflects “irreparable corruption” rather than “the transience of youth.”

“We also conclude, and we think no person reasonably could dispute, that [Kinkel’s] actions are the sort of heinous crimes that, if committed by an adult, would reflect an irretrievably depraved character or irreparable corruption,” Kistler said. “And as Miller recognized, the ‘most heinous murders’ or ‘worst types of murders,’ even when committed by a juvenile, can evidence irreparable corruption.”

And while Kinkel’s psychological problems are relevant mitigating evidence, which the sentencing court considered, they are not the sort of concerns that led to the categorical sentencing limitations on juveniles that the U.S. Supreme Court has outlined in Miller and other recent cases, Kistler said.

James Egan, an Oregon chief appeals court judge serving temporarily on the state high court, wrote a dissent arguing that the majority was mistaken to believe that youth played no role in Kinkel’s crimes.

“I cannot agree that [Kinkel’s] crimes do not reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” Egan said. “In my view, [Kinkel’s] youth is inextricable from his crimes, and it is difficult to comprehend how [his] youth at the time of his crimes, in combination with his mental disorder, did not affect the nature and gravity of his crimes.”

“There is no question that petitioner’s crimes were horrendous,” Egan added, but they did not “demonstrate irreparable corruption. Rather, they demonstrate a brief but horrible psychotic break with horrific consequences.”

“The rarest of children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption are the cool and calculated souls who appreciate and understand their conditions and who either use the conditions as a means to an end or who revel in the hideousness of their depravity,” Egan said. “The rarest of children are not those who struggle with their disorder and fail.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.