Friday, 10 February 2012

Should a 17-year-old murderer be sentenced to natural life in prison?

The answer to that question would depend on a number of factors. Was it first degree murder or was it second degree murder? Was it a child who was murdered or a cop who was on duty? Was the murder committed during a robbery or was he committing a sexual assault? Was it a gangland shooting or a thrill murder? Was it a multiple murder or was only one person killed?

What follows is a case that was heard by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal in which the murder took place in California. The murderer Christopher Murray was 17 when he committed the murder.

On April 3, 2006, Christopher Murray shot and killed Christopher Trevizo and Demitrius Flores, and then shot at but missed Flores's brother Damon. Accompanying Murray were Angelo Vasquez and Salvador Villanueva, who pointed guns at each of the Flores brothers, but fired no shots.

Murray was angry at Trevizo because Trevizo stole marijuana from Murray at gunpoint a few months earlier. Murray and his companions confronted Trevizo and the Flores brothers after following them as they walked along a secluded wash

Murray entered an open plea of no contest to the first degree murders of Trevizo and Demitrius Flores, and to the attempted murder of Damon Flores, subject to a trial on the issue of whether he was insane when the crimes occurred. After the jury found Murray had been sane.

The trial judge imposed the following sentence: As to each of the two murder counts, life without parole plus another 25 years to life for using a firearm with respect to the two murder counts and the upper term of nine years plus 20 years for using the firearm for the attempted murder. Each term was consecutive to the others. This means that the totality of the sentences was two natural life sentences in prison along with an additional 54 years. Obviously he would die in prison without having the serve the additional sentences.

Murray appealed. The appeal court reversed and remanded Murray for resentencing because multiple-murder special circumstances had been improperly imposed for each murder conviction and because it was unclear whether the trial court had exercised its discretion under section in choosing life without parole for the murder counts instead of sentences of 25 years to life.

With respect to his resentencing, the trial court struck the second murder sentence involving special circumstances. (killing two persons instead of only one person) It resentenced Murray to: life without parole on the first murder count, with a consecutive 25 years for using a firearm; a consecutive term of 25 years to life on the second murder count, plus another consecutive 25 years for the use of a firearm and the consecutive high term of nine years for the attempted murder count, plus another consecutive 20 years for the use of the firearm in that attempt. Now this meant that his consecutive sentences would be natural life for one of the murders, and additional 25 years for using a firearm, then a minimum of 25 years for the second murder along with 9 years for the attempted murder and 20 years for the use of the firearm during the attempted murder. This means the totality of the sentences would now be 104 years in prison after he served the natural life sentence. Again, he would obviously die in prison and not serve the additional sentences.

Murray contended that because he was a minor when he committed the crimes, the life-without-parole sentence for one murder count violated his state and federal constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. He also contended that even if the life-without-parole sentence was reduced to a term of 25 years to life, he would still face a de facto sentence of life without parole that is constitutionally prohibited.

No doubt he had in mind the sentence of life without parole and the additional 104 years of imprisonment that had been added to the original sentence of imprisonment for his natural life.

His lawyer argued that even if the trial court exercised its discretion when resentencing him, the court abused that discretion by imposing the no-parole sentence, by running his punishment consecutively, and by imposing the high-term sentence on the attempted murder count.

Section 190.5, subdivision (b), of the California Code which provides that minors who are 16 or 17 and who are convicted of a special circumstance murder under section 190.2 should be given a no-parole life sentence or, in the trial court's discretion, a sentence of 25 years to life. Under this section, the no-parole life sentence is the presumptive choice. (Because Murray committed multiple murders, special circumstances existed making him eligible for the no-parole life sentence.

In Graham v. Florida (2010) the United States Supreme Court announced a categorical rule prohibiting no-parole life sentences for minors who were convicted of non-homicide offenses. Graham's holding was based on the following: (1) scientific studies showing fundamental differences between the brains of juveniles and adults; (2) a juvenile's capacity for change as he matures, which shows that his crimes are less likely the result of an inalterably depraved character; (3) the notion that it is morally misguided to equate a minor's failings with those of an adult; and (4) the fact that even though non-homicide crimes may have devastating effects, they cannot be compared to murder in terms of severity and irrevocability.

Murray’s lawyer argued that the appeal court should extend the Graham decision to Murray and hold that no-parole life sentences for juvenile offenders who commit murder should be sentence to natural life in prison as it categorically violates both the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (no cruel and unusual punishment shall be inflicted) and article I, section 17 of the California Constitution (no punishment that is cruel or unusual) shall be awarded as a sentence.

Let me say from the get go that natural life in prison is in my respectful opinion, not a cruel or unusual sentence. What certainly is cruel is shooting two people to death even if it isn’t necessarily unusual. To deny young people their right to live to an old age because they may have ripped someone off for their drugs is definitely cruel.

In Blackwell the California Appeal Court considered the same argument in the case of a 17-year-old who had been convicted of first degree murder during an attempted robbery inside the victim's home. The Blackwell court concluded that Graham's rationale did not apply because Graham's holding was expressly limited to juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses such as robbery etc. The Graham court recognized that its rule made sense because defendants who do not kill, intend to kill or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers. Murray on the other hand was convicted as the actual perpetrator of multiple first degree murders and the attempted murder of a third person. There is quite a difference between committing a robbery and shooting someone to death.

In Roper v. Simmons (2005) the U.S. Supreme Court established a categorical prohibition against capital punishment for juveniles convicted of homicide. In dismissing the penological justification for the death penalty in such cases, the Roper court said, “It is worth noting that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person.” As Chief Justice Roberts noted in his concurring opinion in Graham, “Roper, he explicitly relied on the possible imposition of life without parole on some juvenile offenders.

Justice Thomas pointed out in his dissent, that the Graham majority held that a life-without-parole sentence on a minor was cruel and unusual punishment ‘unless he has committed a homicide.’

When taken together, these statements strongly suggest that to the United States Supreme Court, a no-parole life sentence for juvenile murderers does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

In Harris v. Wright, an appeal case heard by the 9th Circuit in 1996, the court ruled that a life sentence for a minor convicted of murder in Washington State was not cruel and unusual punishment. The appeal court hearing the Murray appeal agreed and decided that the Graham decision should not be extended to minors convicted of murder.

Murray’s lawyer also argued that his client’s no-parole life sentence was unconstitutional because it was disproportionate when considering the nature of his crimes which was to be measured against various mitigating circumstances. The mitigating circumstances included: his youth; his lack of a prior criminal record; and as evidenced by letters submitted on his behalf, his true remorse for what he had done and his excellent behavior while in prison.

Before I go on with the case, let me say that all those mitigating circumstances that were in his favour would not bring back to life the two youths he shot and killed.

Under the Eighth Amendment, the courts examine whether a punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime. The courts consider all the circumstances of the case, beginning with the gravity of the offense and the severity of the sentence. In the rare case where this threshold comparison raises an inference of gross disproportionality, the court then compares the defendant's sentence with those received by others in both the same state and other states. If this comparative analysis confirms the initial belief that the sentence is grossly disproportionate, then it is cruel and unusual.

Under the California Constitution, a sentence is determined to be cruel or unusual if it is so disproportionate to the crime committed that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.

Although there are many people who would argue that sending a teenager to prison for the rest of his natural life would shock their consciences but there are equally a great many people who have no qualms about sending a teenager who killed two human beings, to prison for the rest of his life.

The justices in the appeal court hearing Murray’s appeal concluded that Murray's no-parole life sentence did not raise an inference of gross disproportionality under the Eighth Amendment. Even taking into account the mitigating factors of his age, previously unblemished criminal record, commendable prison behavior, and otherwise praiseworthy character traits, the record showed that Murray followed his victims into a secluded area where, backed by two armed accomplices, he gunned down his helpless victims. For such a crime, a no-parole life sentence is not disproportionate.

If this youth had shot dead two other youths in Canada, the most he would have to serve (providing that he wasn’t declared a dangerous offender) would be ten years in prison. That is not a suitable punishment for a multiple killer. It would mean that he would only serve five years for killing each of his victims.

The question that has to be answered is; “Should a 17-year-old be treated as an adult offender and be given the maximum sentence if he murders someone?”

Admittedly, a 17-year-old’s brains are not fully developed but a 17-year-old knows by that age as to what is right and was is wrong and also knows that if he murders someone, he will go to prison for a very long time. You can be killed by a 17-year-old just as easily as being killed by a man in his twenties or older.

I don’t know if sending Murray to prison for the rest of his life for having committed two murders is a deterrent to others of his ilk but one thing is for sure, the public will be protected from this killer. No doubt a great many people in California and elsewhere feel safer knowing that a teenager that killed two fellow human beings is safely tucked away in a prison and they are their families will never be facing this young man with a gun in his hand.

Was the public good served by sending this multiple killer to prison for the rest of his life? I would say that the answer to that question is ‘YES’.

Incidentally. The above decisions would have applied to Murray if he had been sixteen years of age when he shot the two youths to death.

No comments: