“They force you to plead,” said the mom who waited outside the courtroom on Thursday. Her son, she explained, was just “standing there” when a bit of teenage mischief went down. The right to a speedy trial turns out to mean nothing when you’re a juvenile, even a juvenile being tried as an adult. After almost three years in lockup, with no trial scheduled, her son agreed to plead guilty to get it over with. “Even the judge couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘They gave you a strike and a felony for that?’”
Her son has not yet been sentenced so, “please don’t use my name or anything that could identify us.” And her son was not in LA Criminal Court that day. She was there to support someone else’s son: Tedi Snyder who was facing a mandatory sentence of 80 years-to-life for a crime that occurred when he was 15.
Several months ago, Tedi was convicted of attempted murder plus “enhancements” for use of a gun and for gang affiliation. He and his father, and several mothers of incarcerated children, and members of the Youth Justice Coalition were staking their hopes on attorney Arthur Goldberg. Could he get Tedi a new trial on the grounds that he’d been represented by ineffective counsel, an attorney who had not presented a defense?
I’ve been in enough courtrooms to know that there are almost insurmountable obstacles to getting a new trial on those grounds, but when a kid looks likely to die in prison, surely you’ve got to try.
As we sat in the courtroom and other cases were called, I was impressed with Judge Sam Ohta. No pushover, but when he looked at defendants, he never failed to consider the human dimension. I thought he’s no bleeding heart but he’s not extreme or punitive either. He really intends to serve justice, to consider public safety while also trying to avoid ruining lives that have potential.
We as a society used to think 15-year-olds were all about potential.
Once upon a time, we recognized kids are different from adults. All juvenile offenders were kept within a separate justice system that sought to educate and rehabilitate not merely punish. Even when we began to try kids as adults, they usually went first to a fitness hearing where a judge considered their level of criminality and their potential for good. Today the District Attorney’s office is permitted to — and routinely does — file charges against kids directly in the adult criminal court without a fitness hearing. The child’s potential and the best interest of the community are never considered. But unlike adults, children languish awaiting trial. Tedi waited till he was almost 20. By the time a jury saw him, he didn’t look like a little kid anymore. The jury heard he was a gangbanging monster. No one spoke to differentiate between the most hardcore gangbangers — usually adults – -who terrorize communities and the vast majority of young posturing associates and hangers-on who would benefit more from intervention and services than from incarceration for life.
As I expected, Judge Ohta denied the motion for a new trial. He laid out the possible avenues of appeal and set a date for sentencing.
There will be no happy surprise on that date. As Judge Ohta pointed out, with mandatory minimum sentences set by statute, he has no discretion. Once upon a time, judges were allowed to exercise, uh, judgment. Today? People will be allowed to speak on Tedi’s behalf. His father can express his love and support and willingness to do anything to help and supervise his son. It makes no difference. If people offer services and job training and therapy, it’s irrelevant. The Youth Justice Coalition is free to present data on extreme sentences and studies that show better outcomes through alternatives. It doesn’t matter. Judge Ohta’s hands are tied. He has no choice but to sentence the young man to die behind bars.
Meanwhile, the mother I met earlier is holding her breath. Her son, at least, isn’t facing a mandatory minimum. His guilty plea carries a possible sentence of 11 years.
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. It will be published in the spring by Lantern Books.