After being expelled for bringing a gun to school, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel shot both of his parents in their Springfield, Oregon, home.
The next day, he returned to Thurston High School and fatally shot two students and injured 24 others.
A group of students tackled and disarmed Kinkel, who begged them to kill him. After being arrested, he lunged at an officer with a knife he had hidden on his leg, and begged police to shoot him.
Kinkel was charged with four counts of aggravated murder and 26 counts of attempted murder. He pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder and waived the insanity defense.
At a six-day sentencing hearing, his defense team presented evidence that Kinkel suffered from a schizoaffective disorder. One of the experts testified that while Kinkel’s mental condition could be managed with medicine, it could not be cured.
“Real frankly, I would not want to see [Kinkel] out on the streets, ever, with this condition, OK?” psychiatrist Dr. Orin Bolstad testified. “Without medicine and without an awful lot of structure and support services.”
The court ultimately imposed consecutive 40-month sentences for each of Kinkel’s attempted murder convictions, which ran consecutively with his four 25-year sentences for murder – totaling around 112 years.
Kinkel challenged his sentence, arguing it constituted cruel and unusual punishment of a 15-year-old. Now 35, Kinkel based his argument on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, issued a year after Kinkel’s post-conviction petition was finalized.
In Miller, the high court held mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional even in murder cases.
After the state court of appeals upheld the sentence in 2016, Kinkel petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court, which also affirmed the sentence on Thursday.
“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,” Justice Rives Kistler wrote for the majority.
“[Kinkel] killed four people over the course of two days. Additionally, he 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 [him] before he could shoot anyone else. Finally, even after officers had placed [Kinkel] under arrest, he attempted to kill one of the officers with a knife he had hidden on his person.”
Miller concluded there are cases when juveniles can receive life without parole sentences, and the Oregon high court concluded that Kinkel is one such case.
The sentencing court had agreed with Kinkel’s expert, Dr. Bolstad, and quoted the doctor during sentencing. The justices agreed as well.
“We also conclude, and we think no person reasonably could dispute, that petitioner’s actions are the sort of heinous crimes that, if committed by an adult, would reflect an ‘irretrievably depraved character,’” Kistler wrote.
The justice noted Kinkel’s mental problems “are a two-edged sword” because while they were “relevant mitigating evidence, which the sentencing court considered, they are not the sort of concerns that led to the categorical sentencing limitations [from other cases].”
Justice James Egan from the Oregon Court of Appeals wrote a dissenting pro tempore opinion, calling Kinkel’s sentence unconstitutional.
“The evidence supports a conclusion that that disregard for human life was a temporary product of [Kinkel’s] mental disorder,” Egan wrote.
“The conditional statements made by the expert witnesses that [Kinkel] would remain dangerous if he did not accept treatment also mean that [he] would not be dangerous unless he did not receive treatment for his mental disorder. Therefore, the danger – the risk produced from a disregard for human life – can also be treated.”
Egan noted that one in five American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 experience some kind of serious mental illness every year, as do one in 25 American adults.
“These numbers illustrate the fact that children with severe mental illness mature, and become law-abiding adults.”