In a decision likely to reduce life-without-parole sentences for teenage offenders, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges are free to hand down 25-year-to-life terms for older juveniles convicted of serious crimes and must consider the defendants' youth before sentencing.
Before the unanimous ruling, California law had been interpreted as requiring judges to lean toward life without parole for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with special circumstances. The decision overturned decades of lower-court rulings and gave two men who were 17 at the time they killed the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by trial judges.
The court said the sentences should be reviewed because they were handed down when state law was being misconstrued and before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that judges must consider a juvenile's immaturity and capacity for change.
The ruling, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, stemmed from appeals in two cases.
In one, Andrew Lawrence Moffett robbed a store and his accomplice killed a police officer in Pittsburg, Calif. Moffett was convicted of murder, robbery and driving a stolen vehicle.
Because the victim was a police officer and Moffett used a gun during the crime, he was subject to life without parole.
In the other case, Luis Angel Gutierrez killed his uncle's wife while living with the family in Simi Valley. He received life without parole because the jury determined he had murdered Josefina Gutierrez while also raping or attempting to rape her.
"Because Moffett and Gutierrez have been convicted of special circumstance murder, each will receive a life sentence," wrote Justice Goodwin Liu for the court. "The question is whether each can be deemed, at the time of sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit ever to reenter society."
Certain juvenile offenders became subject to life without parole when voters passed Proposition 115, the 1990 "Crime Victims Justice Reform Act." State appeals' courts ruled that the law required judges to favor imposing life without parole over a sentence that allowed for release after 25 years.
For two decades, those rulings stood.
But Monday's decision said the lower courts had erred in the interpretation of the law.
"Proposition 115 was intended to toughen penalties for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder by making them eligible for life without parole upon a finding of one or more special circumstances," Liu wrote.
But he said neither the wording of the ballot measure nor any of the official analyses resolved whether "the initiative was intended to make life without parole the presumptive sentence." The court concluded it was not.
Four justices joined a separate opinion to stress that California judges may still sentence older juveniles to life without parole, despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote the concurrence, said the high court's ruling came under a law that was different from California's and involved mandatory lifetime sentences for much younger children.
Attorneys in the case said it was uncertain whether Monday's decision would apply retroactively to cases in which appeals have already been completed. Courts across the country have been divided over whether the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencing applied retroactively, the lawyers said.
Jean Matulis, who represented Gutierrez in the California case, said the ruling should benefit others who committed their crimes as juveniles and are now serving life without parole. Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman said his office was reviewing the decision.