Wednesday, October 25, 2006
C.A. Upholds 50-Year-to-Life Sentence for Teenager Who Killed Two at La Crescenta Elementary School
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A 50-year-to-life sentence imposed on a defendant who was 15 years old at the time of two murders of which he was convicted did not violate the state or federal constitutional ban on cruel and/or unusual punishment, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
“We are not cited to United States Supreme Court or California authority holding that life imprisonment is constitutionally excessive, irrespective of other circumstances, where special circumstance murder is committed by a juvenile,” Presiding Justice Norman Epstein wrote for Div. Four. “Certainly, the viciousness and circumstances of the crime must be considered in any assessment of punishment.”
The circumstances under which 14-year-old Blaine Steven Talmo Jr. and 13-year-old Christopher McColloch were killed in 2000 were “particularly horrendous” and justified the harsh sentence that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen gave the killer, Michael Demirdjian.
The bludgeoned bodies of the two boys were found on the playground of Valley View Elementary School in La Crescenta. They died of blunt-force head trauma; a large rock was found next to Blaine’s head, Christopher had a 60-pound bench lying across his chest and neck; and their blood was all over the schoolyard.
Demirdjian’s lawyer acknowledged at trial that the defendant was at the scene of the crimes, but claimed he was a mere witness to the crimes, which were committed by a drug dealer. Prosecutors claimed that Demirdjian killed the boys in the course of the robbery, and that cuts on his hands and blood from one of the victims found in his home established that he was the killer and not merely a spectator.
Demirdjian’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but on retrial he was found guilty of the two murders, with special circumstances of multiple murder and murder by torture; a robbery-murder allegation was rejected.
Coen originally sentenced the defendant to two life terms without the possibility of parole, and the Court of Appeal affirmed in an unpublished 2003 opinion. The attorney general, however, subsequently advised that the sentence was illegal because California law bars imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a defendant who was less than 16 years old at the time of the crime.
On resentencing, Coen imposed the mandatory sentences of 25 years to life and ordered that they be served consecutively.
Epstein rejected the contention that the consecutive sentences violated the Eighth Amendment, or the state constitutional equivalent, for reasons cited by the U.S. Supreme Court last year when it struck down the death penalty for minors.
The distinction between the death penalty and a life sentence is constitutionally significant, the presiding justice said, adding that the sheer brutality of the crimes may be enough to support a life sentence, even when the defendant was under 16 at the time.
Epstein distinguished People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441, which overturned the life sentence imposed on a 17-year-old who had no prior criminal record and shot a man he thought was about to shoot him.
The Court of Appeal, Epstein noted, distinguished Dillon in People v. Guinn (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 1130, which upheld a life-without-parole sentence for a 17-year-old who bludgeoned his victim with a baseball bat in the course of a robbery.
Unlike the defendant in that case, Epstein noted, Demirdjian will be eligible for parole. “If, as we previously held, a life sentence without possibility of parole is not constitutionally excessive, surely this one is not,” the jurist wrote.
Attorneys on appeal were Fay Arfa for the defendant and Deputy Attorneys General Mary Sanchez and A. Scott Hayward for the defendant.
The case is People v. Demirdjian, B188113.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company