California Ruling Bans Youth Sentences Beyond Life Expectancy

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One hundred years ago yesterday, Virginia’s governor was “besieged” with pleas for clemency for 17-year-old Virginia Christian, scheduled to die that day in the state’s electric chair for murder. A century later, the California Supreme Court scheduled an opinion on a latter-day juvenile defendant facing what some say is a similar sentence.

The century makes a difference in treatment of underage criminals.

Christian, a black young woman, was headed to the electric chair in 1912 for “the murder of Mrs. Ida Virginia Belote, a frail white woman aged 72 years,” after a dispute over laundry the girl had not returned. According to a century-old story in the New York Times, the murder weapons were a poker, a cuspidor and a towel.

As a 16-year-old in 2007, Rodrigo Caballero shot at three members of a rival gang, injuring one and missing the other two. He was convicted of three counts of attempted murder plus firearms and gang charges by a Los Angeles County jury and sentenced to a total 110 years’ imprisonment.

Christian went to her death, Gov. William Mann having “decided there was no basis for interfering.”

But Caballero’s 110-year sentence is unacceptable, says California’s high court, because it effectively means he would be in custody until his own death.

Caballero’s attorney used the 2010 Graham v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court decision. It found life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes besides murder amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. It found that juveniles are less mature and less culpable than adults, thus require a “meaningful opportunity” for rehabilitation and parole.

“Graham imposes a ‘flat ban’ on such sentences,” that is, juvenile life without parole, wrote state Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar in her concurring opinion.

“Like a sentence of life without parole, a prison sentence of such length that it cannot be served within an offender’s lifetime similarly denies his or her ‘right to reenter the community,’” she wrote, quoting Graham.

Attorney David Durchfort represented Caballero and has other clients who are serving decades-long terms, though less than 110 years. He will argue that the ruling applies to sentences that a person could possibly outlive. “We believe the [state] Supreme Court at the end of its decision made clear that each juvenile is going to present a different set of facts,” said Durchfort, “so I believe this decision applies to persons who are technically parole-eligible before they die.”

Life expectancy in prison is shorter than on the outside, he mentioned.

The ruling sends Caballero back to his trial court for resentencing, and retroactively applies to similar cases.

The case is important because it appears to be the first time a state’s high court has struck down a virtual life sentence by citing both Graham and a subsequent case concerning murder defendants.

A case similar to Caballero’s is pending in Florida’s high court, and in lower courts in other states. Though all states abide by their own laws, judges and attorneys may peek into the Caballero docket for arguments.

Juveniles are at a disadvantage in adult courts, Durchfort said. They are unsophisticated, immature and inexperienced. He predicted that one day state legislatures will begin to require periodic review of inmates who were convicted as minors. He could see a special review council or sentencing judges checking in with such inmates every few years.

Photo from City of Ventura's City Manager's Blog

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