Youth sentencing changes concern victim’s daughter, killer’s sister

Brett Pearson during court appearances in 2015. Pearson is serving a life sentence with a minimum of 40 years for the murder of his mother and wounding of his father in 2014.

UPDATE 6/10/19: This story has been updated from its original version to clarify and correct some information. Changes are in italics.

March 5, 2014, was the worst day of Dana Pearson’s life. Her mother was murdered, her father gravely injured and her brother and a friend stood accused of the crimes. 

Brett Angus Pearson and Robert Daniel Miller are now serving life sentences for the crimes with a minimum of 40 years after pleading guilty in 2015. Both boys were 17 years old and using methamphetamine at the time of the murder and planning had taken part over several weeks, according to prosecutors. 

Dana recently testified during the Oregon Legislature’s public hearings on proposed changes to juvenile sentencing and urged further consideration before charging ahead. 

“I hope you will consider not just what a sentence takes away, but what it gives; the time it provides for healing. We are all aware of what it costs the offender who spends valuable time in corrections … His sentence has given me time to figure out how I move forward, to go grocery shopping without fearing we might run in to him today, and the opportunity to share with my daughter as we determine appropriate,” Dana told legislators. “Consider the cost this bill is to future victims, the requested acceleration of their healing is a lot to manage on top of their grief.”

The bill (Senate Bill 1008) has since passed in a 20-10 bipartisan vote and Gov. Kate Brown has signaled support. SB 1008 would change the way the state handles juvenile prosecution, sentencing and imprisonment in several ways: 

• It would keep youth accused of crimes committed as a juvenile in the youth justice system and require a special hearing with a judge before being moved to the adult justice system. 

• Convicted youth would receive a “Second Look” hearing halfway through their sentence to determine their progress and with the possibility of serving the remainder of their sentence under community-based supervision. 

• Requiring an additional review before transferring an incarcerated youth to adult prison with the possibility of serving out the remainder of a sentence in community-based supervision. 

• Eliminating life without parole sentences for all youth offenders and offering a chance of parole after 15 years of imprisonment. 

Dana admits to being conflicted about where she stands on the changes. 

“I love my brother, and I am deeply hurt by his actions – our family is irreparably changed,” she said.

Victim’s rights are a major component of her misgivings, but there are societal issues – such as how the convicted will be transitioned back into their communities – at play as well. Dana’s list of concerns starts with victims being forced to ramp up their grieving processes. 

Being thrust into the justice system and the grieving process at the same time did her no favors, but she describes it now as something that “comes in waves.”

“Did I miss my mother, do I still? Of course. But did I anticipate that every time my daughter smiled, or had a toddler-like day that I would be catapulted back to what we would have had? No.”

Those undulating currents of grief are not reserved for victims of crime, and Dana expects her response will change with time, but asking anyone to speed up such a complicated emotional cycle in an already complicated time is a tall order, she said. 

“I am not in that camp of throw away the key – I’m really not. I just don’t know how the severe reduction in sentence over 6-9 months before true ‘adulthood’ is really accomplishing the intended goal, particularly if we aren’t addressing gainful employment and living situations,” Dana said. 

Another troubling area of the new guidelines is what will constitute taking responsibility for one’s crimes and rehabilitation. Victims and survivors of crime will have a say in the new hearings.

Dana stays in contact with Brett while serving his sentence, but says even she is uncertain whether he’s come to grips with the magnitude of his crimes.

“Brett continues to act as if the rules do not apply to him, whether those be institutional rules or social expectations. He is charming, and what I’m looking for is not lip service but a full scale turn-the-other-way-and-live-your-life-differently,” Dana said. “He was also removed from his life, and placed in a new one. I think it is hard to feel the depth of loss, and therefore understanding and empathy, that his actions have caused when he doesn’t live it.”

The other vein of concern on Dana’s part is what would happen to Brett if he did manage to secure community supervision in lieu of incarceration. The changes will not apply to those convicted of Measure 11 crimes before the date the bill goes into effect, Jan. 1, 2020. If signed by Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon can tout following best practices when it comes to youth offenders, but there is nothing in the legislation adding to support services for convicted youth upon release, much less funding to bolster existing programs. 

“I do truly sometimes wonder what goes through Brett’s head, when he makes appeals, at exactly what he thinks would happen if he were released tomorrow, I would be concerned for his safety both from people who do and do not know him. I don’t think people would be kind to him, and I think that drives [people] down the spiral of recidivism sometimes when no one is kind, there is no support and no where to live,” Dana said. 

Social media adds to those woes. For evidence, look no further than your own Facebook or Twitter stream and count the number of instances where “justice served” and other more dehumanizing comments appear in relation to the perpetrators of crime. When Keizer residents received notice that a sex offender was released to a transition home last week, there were calls for returns to public execution on Facebook. 

On a more personal level, Dana is concerned with raising her own family and not wanting Brett to show up and encouraging the kids to “think he’s cool.

“What pains me is that while a lot of parents experience their children’s realization of how cruel life can be, and how devastating others’ choices can be, I have to break that to my children from within. Instead of them coming home and telling me about something and having that discussion, someday I will have to open that box and say, ’This is what happened to my mother, and your grandfather, and what an impact it had on me.’”

Dana will be able to have that discussion on her own terms, but someone else might find themselves in a very different position if a juvenile offender secures an earlier release.

“I cannot fathom having that discussion with a 12-year-old,” Dana said. 

There’s also an outstanding question of what is being done to deter criminal acts before they happen. 

“My parents tried on multiple occasions to get Brett into intervention programs – targeted at drugs – but either socioeconomic, racial demographics or credit deficiency meant he never qualified,” she said. 

The passage of the bill out of the legislature gave Dana pause for another reason, especially given that Oregon voters approved the original sentencing guidelines with a strong turnout and support. 

“It was appropriate to turn that vote back (her emphasis) to the people. It appears that our legislature doesn’t believe we are equipped to handle that,” she said.