Man convicted for 1985 triple homicide as juvenile has new sentencing hearing, still not eligible for parole
Steven Wayne Keefe was 88 days shy of his 18th birthday when he murdered three people in 1985 in Great Falls.
In 1986, he was convicted and sentenced to a life sentence for each count of deliberate homicide and 10 years for a count of burglary. He was sentenced to additional 10 years per count since the crime was committed with a dangerous weapon.
Keefe’s sentence did not include the possibility of parole.
On Thursday, Keefe was back in court as Judge Greg Pinski of the state district court in Great Falls held a new sentencing hearing in light of U.S. and Montana supreme court rulings in recent years.
Pinski said he granted the request for a new sentencing hearing based on Supreme Court decisions in Roper v. Simmons, 2005, in which the court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18; Graham v. Florida, 2010, which held that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide cases; Miller v. Alabama, 2012, which ruled that mandatory sentences for life without parole for juvenile offenders, even in the case of murder, was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; Montgomery v. Louisiana, 2016, ruled that its previous ruling in Miller should apply retroactively, which potentially affected about 2,300 cases nationwide.
In Montana, that has affected two cases: Keefe and Derrick Steilman, who was convicted of deliberate homicide and sentences to a 110-year sentence without parole for a 1997 murder in Butte and a concurrent 26-year sentence for a 1998 Washington state murder.
In 2017, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Court’s Miller decision also applied to cases in which judges had used their discretion to hand down the same decision. But the court denied Steilman’s petition for resentencing on the grounds of his sentence being a life sentence since it included the possibility of earning day-for-day time off the sentence for good behavior, according to the Billings Gazette.
On Thursday, Keefe’s attorneys argued that he was a changed man who had been rehabilitated and should have the opportunity for parole.
The state argued that Keefe was changing his story to suit the current case law in an attempt to get out of jail and that he still did not take responsibility for his actions or show remorse.
Keefe was convicted of murdering Dr. David McKay, an opthamologist; his wife, Constance; and their daughter Dr. Marian McKay Qamar, 40, a Seattle pediatrician; in the McKay home three miles south of Great Falls, according to court documents.
The conviction was upheld on appeal.
On Thursday, Keefe’s attorneys used testimony from those who knew him in prison and letters from others, to say that he’d been a model prisoner and hadn’t had a disciplinary problem in years. They argued that research into brain development in teens should be a factor in sentencing, as should Keefe’s difficult childhood of abusive and an alcoholic mother and step-father.
The state argued that by the time Keefe was tried for the triple homicide, he had 47 juvenile convictions and that nothing in his upbringing mitigated the seriousness of the crime.
During the murders in 1985, Marian McKay Qamar’s 3-year-old daughter Muna was sleeping in another area of the house.
She was unharmed that day and on Thursday, she offered the victim impact statement on behalf of the family.
“I was sleeping along, helpless, while my family was murdered nearby,” she said. “My whole world was shattered.”
The deaths were so traumatizing to the family, she said, that it became something they didn’t talk about. It wasn’t their fault, she said, but she didn’t get the support she needed to cope with the loss and has suffered as a result.
“I missed out on knowing my mother through their memories,” Muna said. “The most important person in my 3-year-old life was ripped away from me.”
She also lost her father in a 2005 car crash and said he didn’t talk much about her mother. But about a year and a half ago, she found a baby book of hers with a note from her father inside.
The note dated Oct. 31, 1985 read “I cry every day and I pray that I can give you enough love,” Muna read. “I’m sad that you couldn’t know her.”
She said she had found peace and happiness until she heard about the hearing.
During the hearing, Keefe said he wanted to express his deepest sympathy and said there was nothing he could do “to bring these people back.” Keefe said he made a lot of mistakes when he was younger.
“I ask for your forgiveness,” Keefe said. “You don’t have to give that to me, but I beg you for forgiveness.”
Chad Parker, a prosecutor with the Montana Attorney General’s Office, said that the state recommended that the court sentence Keefe to life in prison without the eligibility of parole. The state pointed out that since being in prison, Keefe has added tattoos to his body including one that reads “guilty until proven innocent” and one with three skulls that the state argued represented the McKay family.
John Mills, an attorney with the Phillips Black Project, argued for Keefe that his childhood experience of homelessness; abuse from his mother and step-father, a teacher and his mother’s boyfriend; and alcoholism in his mother in step-father; as well as his teenage brain development were mitigating factors for sentencing, as well as his good behavior in prison in recent years.
The law required the hearing, Pinski said, but to the family, “I understand this is traumatizing. For that, I’m sorry.”
Pinksi said the facts were established in the 1986 trial and upheld on appeal in the triple homicide that to this day, “shocks the Great Falls community.”
In sentencing, Pinski said the court must consider Keefe’s age, family situation and the circumstances of the crime.
Pinski said that though he was 17, Keefe was nearing his 18th birthday and was “mature beyond his age,” since he had a job, lived independently and had a lengthy criminal history.
“Crime was a way of life,” Pinski said, and that Keefe knew the consequences and disregarded them.
Pinski said that in considering Keefe’s childhood, there was no evidence of a life changing trauma that would mitigate the crime.
In considering his mental health, Pinski said at the time, Keefe was a social deviant but recognizes that his mental health has stabilized.
Pinski said the facts of the case indicate that Keefe killed three people “mercilessly and without hesitation or remorse. He killed, he killed and he killed.”
Pinski said the law didn’t grant a juvenile a look back review of their case at some undetermined point in the future and that the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision reference rehabilitation as a consideration at a parole hearing, not at a resentencing hearing.
“The court is unmoved,” Pinski said. “I am not convinced he has accepted responsibility for the crime.”
Pinksi said Keefe’s tattoos of the three skulls, grim reaper and “guilty until proven innocent,” were “shocking.”
He said there could be any reason for those, but case law allows for the court to use tattoos as an element of character for sentencing.
“I interpret those tattoos as bravado” of the crime.
Pinski said Keefe was the only offender in the Montana State Prison serving a life sentence without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile.
He said that when the case law said juveniles could not be sentence to life without parole, except in extreme cases, “it was talking about this case.”
Pinski sentenced Keefe to life sentences without the eligibility of parole; 10 years for a count of burglary; and because the crime was committed with a dangerous weapon, he added 10 years to each count. Each sentence was consecutive.