Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, August 17, 2012


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Supreme Court Cites Eighth Amendment, Says Sentence of 110 Years to Life for Juvenile Is Unconstitutional


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A prison sentence of 110 years to life for a defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the crime violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices threw out the sentence imposed on Rodrigo Caballero by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hayden Zacky and sent the case back to the Court of Appeal, which had upheld the sentence.

Caballero, 16 at the time of the crime, was convicted of three counts of attempted murder in connection with a 2007 incident in which he fired at three teenagers who belonged to a rival gang. According to testimony, the three members of the Val Verde Park Gang were rounding a street corner on foot when Caballero jumped out of a car, identified his own gang by yelling either “Vario Lancas” or “Lancas,” and began shooting when one of the three yelled “Val Verde” in response.

One of the three was hit in the back, the others were not struck.

Zacky sentenced Caballero to consecutive terms of 15 years to life for each of the attempted murders, plus firearms enhancements of 25 years to life with regard to the defendant who was hit and 20 years each as to the two who weren’t, for an aggregate of 110 years to life.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, but Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court yesterday, said the sentence violated Graham v. Florida (2010) 130 S.Ct. 2011.

Graham struck down, on Eighth Amendment grounds, a life sentence without possibility for a parole for a juvenile convicted of burglary and attempted armed robbery. The justices ruled that while such a sentence would pass constitutional muster in a homicide case, there was no legitimate basis for it when the crime did not involve loss of life.

Chin rejected prosecution arguments that Graham should not be applied to a crime involving intent to kill, and that the court should look at the individual sentences, each of which carried the possibility of parole, rather than the aggregate.

The justice cited the recent case of Miller v. Alabama (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2455, which extended Graham’s reasoning to hold that a law mandating life without parole sentences for juveniles in homicide cases violates the Eighth Amendment.

Chin explained:

Graham’s analysis does not focus on the precise sentence meted out.  Instead, as noted above, it holds that a state must provide a juvenile offender ‘with some realistic opportunity to obtain release’ from prison during his or her expected lifetime.”

The court’s ruling requires that sentencing courts set “meaningful” minimum terms for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses for which the maximum term is life, who would then be eligible for parole, and invites previously sentenced juveniles to seek habeas corpus relief.

In setting the minimum terms, Chin said, the court must consider “all mitigating circumstances,” including the offender’s age, whether the offender was a direct perpetrator or an aider and abettor, and the minor’s physical and mental development.

The opinion was joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, and Carol Corrigan.

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, concurred separately, arguing that the majority opinion gives too little guidance to the trial court.

Graham does not require defendant be given a parole hearing sometime in the future; it prohibits a court from sentencing him to such a term lacking that possibility at the outset,” Werdegar wrote. “Therefore, I would remand the case to the trial court with directions to resentence defendant to a term that does not violate his constitutional rights, that is, a sentence that, although undoubtedly lengthy, provides him with a ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’”

The case was argued in the Supreme Court by David E. Durchfort of the West Los Angeles firm of Kosnett & Durchfort for the defendant, Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center as amicus for the defendant, and Deputy Attorney General Lawrence M. Daniels for the state.

The case is People v. Caballero, 12 S.O.S. 4146.


Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company