Though challenges are certain, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Friday a state parole board abused its authority when it ordered a juvenile convicted of murder resentenced to an adult prison.
The ruling by Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald means 22-year-old Ryan Lo, who was found guilty of the 1991 murder of another teenager in an isolated South County canyon, could be released from the California Youth Authority within three years, instead of being sent to state prison where he would face 29 years to life. The CYA can only hold prisoners until the age of 25.
Prosecutors vow to appeal Fitzgerald’s decision, which now returns the case to the state parole board.
“This is what I’ve been fighting and struggling for,” Lo’s defense attorney Gary L. Proctor said Friday after the hearing. “Our hope is to play by the rules in court and keep political influence and intimidation out of the process.”
Proctor has accused high-ranking county officials, including Sheriff Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, of unduly influencing the state parole board when they wrote letters urging that Lo be sent to state prison.
Prosecutors alleged Lo is beyond reform and should be locked up in state prison. Further, they said, justice--not political posturing, as Proctor contends--led to the resentencing of the Mission Viejo man.
Anthony Da Silva, a deputy state attorney general representing CYA, says Capizzi and Gates did nothing improper because state law allows law enforcement officials to write letters about juvenile inmates.
“That is something that is customarily done,” he said. “There is no evidence that the letters caused undue influence.”
The case stems from a troubled high school love affair, and a threatened custody battle over a baby boy, that ended with fatal shots on Sept. 3, 1991, in isolated Holy Jim Canyon, off Trabuco Canyon Road.
Destinni Mardesech was 16 when authorities said she plotted with her friend, Lo, to kill 19-year-old Damian McKenna, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her son. While Mardesech watched, Lo, then 17, fatally shot McKenna in the head, prosecutors said.
Although the two youths were tried as adults, they were eligible because of their age for commitment to the CYA, which found them to be “amenable” to rehabilitation. Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin said he felt legally bound to follow juvenile guidelines and sentenced the pair to the youth authority, or about six years of custody.
The legal saga over Lo’s sentence began less than a year after he arrived at the CYA in 1993, when the state’s Youthful Offender Parole Board decided he should be resentenced to adult prison.
Lo “is a highly sophisticated individual who appears to be too criminally sophisticated for Youth Authority treatment,” the board ruled in making its decision. “In addition to shooting the victim, [Lo] admitted to crushing the victim’s head with a boulder because the victim was moaning.”
Back in Orange County, Judge McCartin again refused to send Lo to prison, prompting an appeal by the district attorney’s office. The 4th District Court of Appeal eventually ruled last year that Lo should be resentenced, but said he could first seek any administrative challenges still available.
After another round of challenges, the youth parole board again decided Lo should be resentenced to prison. The defendant, in a last-ditch effort last year, sued the parole board in Orange County Superior Court, setting the stage for Friday’s hearing in Fitzgerald’s court.