By Angela Patel
RIVERSIDE, CA — Riverside County Superior Court Judge Otis Sterling, III, late last week refused to strike sentence enhancements for two at-the-time teen defendants, Noel Hernandez and Carlos Martinez, who are currently serving life sentences for a 2014 murder.
Hernandez and Martinez were convicted of second-degree murder in 2018 after a jury trial.
When the murder occurred, Hernandez was only 18 years old, with no prior criminal record. Martinez was 19 years old, was on felony probation at the time of the crime, and had several previous strikes on his record.
In addition to the second degree murder charge, 25 years were added to Hernandez’s sentence due to a California law that imposes a sentence enhancement for the use of a gun in a serious felony. The jury found that Hernandez had owned and purposely fired the gun that killed the victim.
Hernandez’s final sentence was 40 years to life, a very long sentence for an 18-year-old with no previous convictions.
Hernandez’s defense attorney, Mario Rodriguez, asked the court to strike the gun enhancement from his sentence, which would leave Hernandez with 15 years to life in prison.
He argued that, based on Hernandez’s age, his lack of a record, and the fact that the murder was not “particularly brutal,” the court should strike the 25-year enhancement in the interest of justice.
“This case is a tragic reminder of why we have gun laws, and why people who are 18 years old shouldn’t be walking around with guns on their person,” Rodriguez noted.
However, he also questioned the impact of the sentencing law in murder cases such as this one.
“The legislature has decided that crimes involving the uses of firearms carry enhancements, and that decision is a legislative choice which we’re bound to honor, but the truth be told, if someone’s dead, maybe it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference whether a knife was used or a machete was used, or some other type of deadly weapon was used. All homicides are horrible in their very nature,” he argued.
Deputy District Attorney Jacob Silva objected to striking the enhancement for Hernandez and argued that the enhancement should never be stricken for cases involving a murder.
“This whole murder doesn’t take place if Mr. Hernandez doesn’t leave his home with a gun,” Silva reasoned.
Silva also claimed that the murder was brutal, as Hernandez essentially “blew [the victim’s] brains out” while Martinez held a screwdriver to the victim’s throat.
The mother of the victim appeared in court to support the enhanced sentences of the two defendants. “These two criminals deserve their life sentence,” she said.
Judge Otis Sterling took a long time to go over the details of the case before making a decision regarding the gun enhancement strike.
“The penalty is harsh,” the judge said. “The purpose [of the gun enhancement] is for people not to carry around guns, especially for young people who might act out of immaturity. This case appears to be the exact case for why the law was passed and why the penalty is this severe.
“It was a crime of great violence that was committed under circumstances that show planning,” he added.
Essentially, the judge’s reason for denying to strike the gun enhancement was that this case was a perfect example of why gun sentencing enhancements were initially imposed, and that neither the defendant’s age nor his family’s statements overcame the reasoning behind the law.
When asked by defense attorney Rodriguez if he would consider reducing the gun enhancement, Judge Sterling claimed that he didn’t believe it was in his power to modify the gun sentencing enhancement (rather than striking it altogether) because of the wording of the law.
Because of Judge Sterling’s ruling, Hernandez’s sentence will remain at 40 years to life.
As part of the same case, Martinez’s defense attorney Laura Garcia asked the court to remove the five-year enhancement that is added to the sentence of anyone who is convicted of a serious or violent felony with a previous felony conviction.
The five-year enhancement works in addition to the law that doubles the sentences of those with previous felony convictions.
A law passed in 2018 made it possible for judges to dismiss this five-year enhancement, also known as a “nickel prior.”
Garcia argued that, while Martinez has an extensive criminal history, his age and his participation in education and rehabilitation programs both inside and outside of prison were evidence that he did not deserve the enhanced sentencing.
DDA Silva responded very strongly, arguing Martinez was “headed off the deep end” at the time of the crime and “began a criminal career from a very early teenage age.
“Between 14 and 19 he went from vandalism to murder,” Silva noted. “He was on a path. He was going to be a murderer. That’s who he was at the time. He deserved and deserves all the punishment that the law allows.”
According to Silva, Martinez is “the exact person these laws were meant to punish.”
While Judge Sterling noted that he does give consideration to the difficulties in young life that Martinez dealt with, he also argued that Martinez needed to do more self-reflecting in order to appreciate the decisions he had made that resulted in the victim’s death.
Sterling pointed to several words and phrases in Martinez’s letter, in which he asked the court to strike the nickel prior, which he thought showed that the defendant did not fully understand his role in the murder.
Martinez, in the letter, had referred to his involvement in the murder as “one bad choice,” which the judge said did not account for the many bad choices that led to the death of the victim. Martinez also called the event an “accident,” despite the judge’s findings and the jury ruling that the murder was not accidental.
As for the defendant’s age, the judge said, “He was old enough to know what he was doing, he was old enough to bring a screwdriver to the altercation.”
Judge Sterling ultimately denied the defense’s request to strike the five-year sentencing enhancement for Martinez, keeping his total sentence at 36 years to life.