Last week, we discussed the state of life without parole for juvenile offenders, as Daniel Marsh was ultimately sentenced to 52 years to life in prison, but will be eligible for parole after serving just 25 years.
The legal status of life without parole for juveniles is an evolving field of law, as the state of California has passed statutory reforms in recent years and two years ago the US Supreme Court invalidated state laws that mandated life sentences without parole for minors convicted of certain crimes.
The LA Times Editorial Board this weekend noted that the Supreme Court made the right call two years ago, but added that “in that decision, Miller vs. Alabama, the court left unresolved a crucial detail: Did the decision apply only to future cases, or did it extend to minors already serving life sentences?”
The court, they write, “now has a chance to answer that question and to complete this important act of justice and decency by making the ruling retroactive.”
The case involves George Toca. He was convicted in Louisiana when he was just 17 back in 1984 when he “accidentally shot and killed an accomplice during a robbery.” Mr. Toca contends that someone else killed his friend – and the Innocence Project took up his cause.
However, that is not the only issue in this case. The Times writes, “After 30 years behind bars, Toca argues that he’s a different person than the child who was imprisoned in 1985 and that the Miller ruling means he should be able to offer mitigating evidence at a new sentencing hearing. Unsurprisingly, the state of Louisiana disagrees.”
The Times notes that the Miller case itself involved a young man convicted of an even “more heinous crime.” Fourteen-year-old Miller, in 2003, along with a friend, “beat a neighbor with a baseball bat, then torched a house trailer with the victim still inside.”
The Supreme Court has acknowledged in previous decisions that “biologically and psychologically, young minds are not fully formed and, among other things, teens have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
In Miller, the court recognized that “mandatory sentence of life without parole for minors violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Sentences in such cases, the court held, must be tailored to the individual circumstances of the crime.”
The Times therefore argues, “If it’s unconstitutional now to automatically imprison children for life, surely the same constitutional conflict exists for those sentenced before the Miller decision.
“The Toca case hinges on whether the Miller decision, which bans the application of state law to a class of defendants, constituted a substantive change to the law and thus applies retroactively. Conversely, if it regards Miller as only a procedural change — a shift from optional to automatic sentencing — it might only apply prospectively. So far, state and lower federal courts have been divided over which interpretation is right.
“It is clear to us that Miller calls for more than a procedural adjustment,” the Times argues. “It voids state laws by banning automatic sentences and instead compels judges to make discretionary decisions. Ruling for Toca does not mean he will be released, just that he — and others similarly sentenced while still kids — will have a chance to make the argument that the man is different from the child and that his sentence should be reconsidered. Fairness and justice demand it.”
Revisiting Justification For the Death Penalty in California
Gerald Uelmen is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, and in 2008 was part of the state commission that drafted recommendations on capital punishment.
This weekend, he has an op-ed appearing in the Sacramento Bee that argues that the death penalty in California remains a “hollow process.” The state of California reinstated the death penalty back in 1977. In the 37 years since, the state has sentenced more than 1,000 people to death. Only 13 have been executed.
Professor Uelmen foreshadows the issue by recounting a 2010 story where “the district attorney of San Diego agreed to a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole in a case involving the sexual assault and murder of two teenage girls. In explaining her decision, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said California’s death penalty is ‘a hollow promise’ to victims.”
Currently, he notes that there are 749 living on California’s death row, the most in the nation, and 96 of the 1000 have died from other causes while their cases were pending. Meanwhile, “More than 100 California death sentences have been reversed due to serious constitutional errors, including innocence.
“I served as the executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice,” he continues, noting, “The commission was created by the California Senate to investigate causes of wrongful conviction and problems with the death penalty in California.
“We found that California death penalty cases take an average of 25 years to move through the constitutionally mandated post-conviction review process,” he states. More importantly, he added, “It’s something of a misnomer to even call this an ‘average’ since the vast majority of cases have not completed post-conviction review.
“Our commission concluded that the primary cause of the delay is the failure to provide adequate funding to hire the attorneys and court staff needed to work on death penalty cases. A person sentenced to death today must wait five years for the first attorney to be assigned to his case. One death row inmate has waited 17 years for an attorney to be appointed for the review stage called habeas corpus, the stage where courts look at claims such as actual innocence,” he writes.
Of the cases that are fully resolved in federal court, “we found that 2 out of 3 California death sentences have been reversed. That is an error rate we would not tolerate in most areas of government.”
He continues, “Cases are reversed for many reasons, including incompetent defense attorneys who literally slept through trial, prosecutors who hid evidence, mistakes by judges and, yes, innocence. The Death Penalty Information Center maintains what is considered the definitive list of innocent people exonerated from death row across the country. Three are from California.
“So why not just cut appeals to speed up executions?” he asks. “Because the death penalty comes with a deadly finality that we cannot ignore.”
He writes, “Our commission did make recommendations about how we could preserve justice, protect the innocent and make the process move a little faster. These recommendations included doubling the amount of money we now spend on the death penalty, a figure we calculated as $130 million each year. These recommendations have been ignored.
“If the death penalty exists in name only, then why do prosecutors continue to seek it?” he asks. He continued, “More and more are choosing not to as they realize that justice for all may be better served with a punishment of life in prison without parole.”
We saw that recently in Yolo County, where William Gardner could have faced the death penalty in the shooting death of Leslie Pinkston, but the District Attorney opted not to seek it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting