Thursday, June 9, 2011
Court of Appeal Rules Juvenile’s Life Sentence Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A sentence of 50 years to life imprisonment, plus two consecutive life terms, violates the state and federal constitutions where imposed on an offender who was 14 years of age when the crimes were committed, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The defendant, identified only as J.I.A., was convicted of multiple counts of robbery, kidnapping, threatening witnesses, and violent sexual offenses. Those “particularly heinous” crimes caused “great trauma” to his victims, all of whom were also juveniles, Justice Kathleen O’Leary wrote for Div. Three.
But a sentence that requires a juvenile to be incarcerated for the remainder of his expected lifetime violates the Eighth Amendment under controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent, O’Leary said.
The defendant was convicted of 11 felonies, with numerous enhancements, resulting from four separate attacks in late 2004. In one incident, he sodomized a 12-year-old boy, in another he robbed and kidnapped a 13-year-old at knifepoint, and in another he robbed and sodomized another 12-year-old at knifepoint.
In the fourth incident, he took out a knife and threatened to “shank” another 12-year-old if he didn’t give the defendant money. The boy dropped his backpack and ran to school, reporting what happened to the principal.
J.A. was arrested later that day after an officer found him in an alley, armed with a Swiss Army knife. A DNA sample was taken, linking him to the two sexual attacks.
The defendant was convicted on all counts, and all enhancement allegations were found true. In preparation for sentencing, the defense argued that that multiple life sentences sought by the prosecution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441.
In Dillon, the justices overturned the life sentence imposed on a 17-year-old convicted under the felony-murder rule, finding the statutory sentence cruel or unusual as applied to a defendant that young, who had no prior criminal record and shot a man he thought was about to shoot him.
Orange Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler, however, said Dillon did not apply to J.A. given his past offenses, his criminal state of mind, and the seriousness of the crimes, particularly the sex offenses carrying mandatory life sentences under the One-Strike Law.
The judge imposed consecutive 25-year-to-life terms on two counts of sodomy by force, and consecutive life terms with possibility of parole on two counts of kidnapping to commit robbery, with concurrent sentences on charges of forcible oral copulation and attempted robbery, and stayed sentences on all other counts. Enhancements were stricken or stayed.
O’Leary, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the sentence, in the aggregate, violated the recent ruling in Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011, on which the court asked for supplemental briefing following argument.
‘De Facto LWOP Sentence’
While Graham dealt specifically with life-without-parole sentences, the justice explained, the term imposed in this case was “ a de facto LWOP sentence” because J.A. would be ineligible for parole until age 70, and the life expectancy of someone who has been incarcerated since his teens is “considerably shorter.”
The justice went on to say that the sentence is also unconstitutional under earlier case law interpreting the state and federal constitutions as requiring that sentences meet a proportionality test, taking into consideration the nature of the offenses and the offender and comparing the sentence imposed with those imposed in the same jurisdiction for more serious offenses and those imposed for similar offenses in other jurisdictions.
The seriousness of the crimes and the intent behind them argues in favor of the sentence, O’Leary acknowledged. But the defendant’s age, family history, and substandard intelligence are overriding considerations, the jurist concluded.
J.A. was himself forced to orally copulate a relative when he was just six years old, according to a presentence evaluation, the justice noted. He suffered from physical abuse and neglect through much of his childhood, “had no positive influences in his life,” and began drinking, smoking marijuana, and having sex by the age of 13, she said.
“Based on J.A.’s age at the time of the offenses, his deficient upbringing, and his inferior intelligence, we conclude...the nature of the offender...requires us to conclude J.A.’s sentence is cruel and unusual punishment under the federal and California proportionality tests,” O’Leary summarized.
The appropriate remedy, the panel decided, is to have the kidnapping sentences run concurrent to those imposed for the sex offenses, which O’Leary said is statutorily permissible. The result is that the defendant will be eligible for parole prior to age 57, after serving 42.5 years, O’Leary explained.
The case is People v. J.I.A., 11 S.O.S. 3061.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company