October 26, 2012 By Wallin & Klarich

When he was 17 years old, Andrew Moffett and an accomplice robbed a supermarket. The parties fled in a stolen car, but they crashed their vehicle and hid in nearby bushes. When police officers approached, Moffett’s accomplice shot at and killed one of the police officers. Both minors were captured; Moffett’s accomplice was tried and found guilty of first-degree murder, and Moffett was found guilty of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. At sentencing, the judge indicated California Penal Code § 190.5 required the judge to sentence Moffett to life without parole (LWOP) unless certain limited circumstances were present. The judge found that no such circumstances were present, and he sentenced Moffet to life without the possibility of parole. Moffett appealed his sentence.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller vs. Alabama held that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments,” forbids the mandatory sentencing of any juvenile to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, regardless of the crime committed. (Miller v. Alabama (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2460.) California Penal Code § 190.5(b), which governs juvenile sentencing in first-degree murder cases, gives judges some discretion in sentencing; it declares that any defendant who was 16 or 17 years old at the time of committing an act of first degree murder “shall be confine[d] in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole or, at the discretion of the court, 25 years to life.” California courts have interpreted this provision to mean that, in juvenile first-degree murder cases, a life without parole sentence is generally mandatory, as “16- or 17-year-olds who commit [first-degree] murder must be sentenced to LWOP, unless the court, in its discretion, finds good reason to choose the less severe sentence of 25 years to life.” (People v. Guinn (1994) 28 Cal.App. 4th 1130, 1141-42.)

The Court of Appeals held that California’s first-degree murder sentencing system for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. The court held that “A presumption in favor of LWOP, such as that applied in this case, is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of Miller.” The Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court for resentencing. Further, the Court of Appeals underlined that the defendant was convicted of felony murder and did not act to kill; the court instructed the sentencing judge to, on remand, “give appropriate weight to the fact that appellant was a non-killer convicted under the felony-murder rule.” In short, the Court of Appeals counseled the trial court to try again, and, this time, to likely sentence Moffett to a sentence less harsh than life without parole, i.e. 25 years to life.

This ruling is in line with the juvenile court’s long standing philosophy that rehabilitation should take precedence over punishment.

If you or your loved one is facing juvenile charges, call us now 888-280-6839 and speak to our experienced juvenile law attorneys from Wallin & Klarich. For over 30 years Wallin & Klarich has been defending clients accused of juvenile offenses. We have offices in San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange County. We will be there when you call.

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