Courts, lawmakers, DAs at odds over sentencing for young killers
By Merrill Balassone
|Jonathan Medina – Merced Sun-Star –|
A 14-year-old boy who killed a young father at a child’s birthday party in south Modesto likely will die in prison. Angel Cabanillas, now 19, stands to serve at least 100 years behind bars.
But just 40 miles south in Merced, a boy who was 15 when he committed a fatal drive-by to impress his fellow gang members is set to be sentenced Monday to 31 years in prison. He could be out by the time he’s 42.
The disparity in their sentences reflects a divide in how judges and prosecutors handle violent crimes committed by children. Whether minors can be sentenced to die in prison has recently come under scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Legislature, and their discussions could change the rules for cases like Cabanillas.’
In May, the high court ruled juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes. Denying children who commit lesser crimes the opportunity to ever get out of prison constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and runs counter to a worldwide consensus against such harsh sentences for juveniles, the court wrote.
The decision did not specifically address what can happen to children convicted of murder, but legal experts say recent court rulings regarding juvenile justice have shown a trend toward leniency. In 2005, the Supreme Court banned use of the death penalty against minors in all cases.
“The court has made clear that juveniles are different than adults,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.
The California Legislature is heading in that direction, too. On Friday, it moved forward with a bill that would allow courts to take a second look at cases involving juveniles sentenced to life without parole.
It would not prohibit life without parole sentences for juveniles, but would let courts review such cases 15 years after sentencing, potentially allowing some young convicts to receive a lesser sentence of 25 years to life.
The bill’s author, Democratic Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco said brain development continues well through adolescence, which means impulse control, planning and critical thinking skills are not fully developed.
“This sentence was created for the worst of criminals that have no possibility of reform, and it is not a humane way to handle children,” said Yee, a child psychologist. “While the crimes they committed caused undeniable suffering, these youth offenders are not the worst of the worst.”
Said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch: “We can keep the public safe without locking children up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”
Opposition by DAs
The California District Attorney’s Association opposes the bill. Prosecutors say the life without parole sentence is imposed mainly for teenagers aged 16 or 17 who were convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances.
“I believe that (life without parole) absolutely should remain available as a possible sentencing choice for judges to impose on minors who commit horrifying murders,” said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager.
San Francisco attorney Victor Morse, who is appealing Cabanillas’ sentence, said two countries — the United States and Israel — impose sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. He said Cabanillas’ sentence of 132 years to life in prison is tantamount to life without parole.
By 2007, 73 children in 19 states, including California, had been sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed at ages 13 or 14, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
“We’re hoping the court of appeal will see fit to declare that Angel should sometime be able to at least ask the parole board to see the light of day,” Morse said.
Cabanillas was released from juvenile hall, where a psychiatrist prescribed an anti-psychotic medication along with pills for depression and a sleeping disorder, five days before the shooting spree.
Cabanillas called for help the day after his release because he didn’t have any medications. He didn’t get the pills until after his arrest, when a psychiatrist diagnosed him with depression and auditory hallucinations.
Without his medication, Cabanillas resorted to abusing alcohol the day of his crime, Morse said. As a result, a jury found Cabanillas guilty of second-degree murder rather than the first-degree charge prosecutors sought.
Cabanillas was convicted of spraying bullets at party guests, who tried to run for cover at the Almaden Way home June 10, 2006. Manuel Rayas, 28, of San Francisco was killed. Cabanillas shot and wounded a man on nearby Spokane Street and pointed a rifle at others on Montavenia and Parducci drives.
The attorney general’s office is expected to respond to Cabanillas’ appeal with the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno next month.
In the Merced case, prosecutors told The Merced Sun-Star they offered the more lenient plea deal to Jonathan Eduardo Medina, who faced a life sentence, because he was just a child when he committed the ultimate crime.
“We’re holding him accountable as an adult, but he was still 15 years old,” prosecutor David Elgin said.