Life Sentences for Juveniles
Early Monday morning, it was back to Criminal Court for Tedi Snyder where once again we expected Judge Sam Ohta to hand down the mandatory sentence of 80-years-to-life. As I’ve written before, this is the mandatory penalty for an incident in which Tedi used no gun and no one died, an incident that occurred when Tedi was 15, two months after he was shot in the head and almost killed. He was recovering from being shot again the day before his arrest.
But as we waited to enter the courtroom, Amy York, a social worker and sentencing/mitigation specialist, got wind of what might be good news. A lawyer passing by in the hall mentioned a decision that had just come down from the Second District Court of Appeals–a case that might make a difference for Tedi. Though the Supreme Court ruled on May 17 in Graham v. Florida that juveniles must not be sentenced to life without parole for any crime short of homicide, California continues to impose sentences so extreme they are the effective equivalent of life without the possibility of parole. Apparently the Court of Appeals had weighed in on whether such sentences violate the Constitution.
York had not been hired but was there as a friend and supporter of Tedi and his family. She approached the court-appointed panel attorney to share the news. He shrugged it off, saying maybe the judge knew about the new decision. (Panel attorneys, unlike public defenders, are paid a low flat fee regardless of how many hours a case demands or how complex it may be. Maybe that’s why they are notoriously negligent. York, putting the best face on it, suggested the criminal justice system in Los Angeles takes such a punitive view of youth, maybe panel attorneys just don’t think the extra effort is worth it.) She, however, began to work the phone trying to track down the decision.
10:10 AM. In the courtroom. Tedi’s attorney offered Judge Ohta a folder of letters of support, though these would probably be meaningless. The judge agreed to reschedule sentencing for Tuesday, September 21st so he would have time to read through the materials, though he warned that under the law there was very little he could do to change the sentence. No mention was made of the court decision that could perhaps offer Judge Ohta a legally appropriate way to show rational mercy.
At least Tedi’s supporters gained a week’s time.
Outside, a lawyer handed a photocopied decision over to York. There it was! The People v. Victor Manuel Mendez:
“We also find that Mendez’s lengthy sentence—which was imposed on a juvenile who did not commit a homicide or inflict bodily injury and which makes him ineligible for parole until well beyond his life expectancy—constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional under the federal and state Constitutions. We remand Mendez’s case for reconsideration of his sentence, and direct the trial court to correct his abstract of judgment.”
Kim McGill, lead organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, promised to take a copy of the decision directly to the judge as she fears the panel attorney may fail to do so. But judges often won’t accept material from parties other than the attorneys of record. “We have to be sure Judge Ohta knows about this,” she said as she and almost 60 members of the YJC gathered around Tedi’s father. “And he has to know about Tedi’s record since he’s been locked up. He graduated, he won the respect of Probation and the County Jail guards.” Tedi got a reputation for avoiding fights and mentoring some of the most vulnerable kids he met in lockup. “You didn’t hear in court that kids on the streets of South Los Angeles have higher levels of PTSD than youth in Baghdad or US soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.” And it’s not Kim McGill making up that fact. It comes from studies by the Rand Corporation and UCLA. “Child soldiers in the Congo,” she said, “are protected by human rights standards and given refugee status, counseling and re-training while child soldiers in the United States are sentenced to die in prison.”
York and the YJC will be back and as McGill pointed out, “We’re here to support Tedi and the two youths who were shot.” As long as some of our neighborhoods are warzones, “on any given day,” she said, “their roles could have been reversed.”
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.