Nearly 20 years after murdering his family members, Brian Bassett is hardly recognizable from the slightly built, disheveled teenager Grays Harbor knew from newspaper photos. His head is shaved and tattoos cover his arms.
And he has married while in prison. His wife says the change is more than skin deep, and the teen he was when last on Grays Harbor is gone for good.
Bassett was quiet, speaking briefly and respectfully when Judge Gordon Godfrey asked him if he understood his rights at a hearing in Grays Harbor County Superior Court Monday afternoon.
Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott attended the proceedings, along with about 30 others. The crowd included members of the Bassett and Lamb families along with many people who got involved with charity and fundraising efforts spurred by the tragedy that shook the entire Harbor community.
“I remember when he was sentenced, we were taking him down to the court,” Scott said. “His appearance then was drastically different from his appearance now. He was pretty slightly built, and red-headed, fair-skinned kid, at the time he was arrested and convicted and sentenced. Now he looks like a guy who’s been in prison for 20 years. He looked like you would expect, anyway.”
Bassett was convicted in 1996 of three counts of aggravated first-degree murder. He shot his parents, Michael and Wendy Bassett, and drowned his brother, Austin, in a bathtub in the family’s McCleary home in 1995.
His friend, 17-year-old Nicholaus McDonald, was convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of Michael and Austin Bassett and sentenced to 65 years in prison in 1996.
His wife, who asked not to be identified, was at the hearing and said the change is for the better.
“I don’t think there’s anything left of the 16-year-old boy that he was,” she said. “He’s a wonderful, extraordinary man. A woman doesn’t marry a man in his circumstances lightly.”
She said it took several years for her to decide to marry Bassett. She’s known him for a decade now, and they’ve been married 4 1/2 years. She declined to say how they met.
After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 and new rules from the Legislature this year, Bassett is back in court to determine a minimum term for his life sentence. The high court ruled that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, which Bassett received, is cruel and unusual punishment for a minor and therefore unconstitutional. On Tuesday, Godfrey ruled the case should wait until after some similar state Supreme Court cases have been decided.
Bassett’s wife said she’s happy to see the law change to recognize that juvenile defendants shouldn’t be automatically condemned to life in prison. The high court ruling cites several reasons for the change, particularly that a teen’s brain development is incomplete and a minor often can’t escape bad circumstances at home.
“I think justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin,” Bassett’s wife said. “He has experienced the justice side of the court system, and now I’m hoping he can experience some mercy and forgiveness.”
After the murders, Bassett and McDonald took valuables from the Bassett home and headed for California in the family van. But McDonald turned himself in when they stopped in Oregon, then led police to Bassett.
Bassett’s wife said that over the past seven years, she’s visited him 845 times, and the couple gets to spend 26 hours together every other week at Monroe Correctional Complex, where he’s been serving his sentence.
She said Bassett is taking classes through University Beyond Bars, a program aiming to help inmates get an education and earn college degrees. She said he finished his first class, a logic course, last quarter, but is missing his sign-up period because of the Grays Harbor County hearing. She thinks his friends signed him up for English and oceanography classes.
She said she hopes the new hearings provide an opportunity to look at what she called errors in his first trial.
“I just know things weren’t as they should be,” she said.
Bassett’s attorney, Eric Lindell of Seattle, asked that Judge Gordon Godfrey recuse himself from presiding over the new hearings largely because of statements Godfrey made at Bassett’s sentencing hearing.
Among other comments, Lindell’s filing quotes Godfrey: “Tell you what, bottom line, you’re a walking advertisement, my friend, for the death penalty for kids your age that do stuff like this. And you know what cold really is? If they could have done it, I would have signed it.”
“Judge Godfrey’s declaration that he placed the value of Brian Bassett’s life ‘at zero,’ and that, if given the option, he would have sentenced Brian to death, is a clear statement of actual bias against Mr. Bassett,” Lindell wrote.
“I’ve reviewed it and I don’t see where anything in there predisposes me one way or the other toward Mr. Bassett,” Godfrey said.
He told the attorneys they needed to establish how long the hearing would take, what issues the defense would present and which of those the state has grounds to rebut. The next hearing will be a status check Dec. 8.
Interim Prosecutor Gerald Fuller said the state Supreme Court is currently set to decide several cases involving other juvenile defendants by this fall. If rulings are issued in those cases, Bassett’s case may come up early next year.
The new rules for juvenile offenders adopted by the Legislature state the minimum sentence for first-degree murder will be 25 years. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say life sentences were unconstitutional generally, just that they could not be a mandatory minimum. There’s some question about whether the ruling will in fact allow a life sentence as a minimum, and how it applies to old cases like Bassett’s, that the state cases may clear up.
“(Judge Godfrey) has the authority, under the statute, to set a minimum term up to life,” Fuller said.
Even if Bassett becomes eligible for parole after the minimum term, because the sentences for his crimes must be served consecutively, he would still effectively be serving a life term.
“I would hope the court, when they do impose whatever sentence they impose, ensures the fact that it’s a life sentence,” Scott said.
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.