SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Leif Taylor was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole not once, but twice, for killing a man while stealing a bicycle when he was 16.
His first sentence was overturned when an appeals court ruled that his confession to fatally shooting William Shadden in 1993 was coerced by investigators. But he was resentenced to the same no-parole term after civil rights attorneys say the courts ignored his youth and difficult childhood.
Taylor’s case, critics say, demonstrates how California law fails to follow recent rulings by both the United States and California supreme courts and the need for a new law that would automatically give youthful offenders a chance at parole after 25 years.
Five years ago, the nation’s high court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those under 18 convicted of murder. Last year, the court said the ruling was retroactive for the more than 2,000 offenders serving such sentences nationwide, and that all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance at parole one day.
The court found that the harshest punishments levied against adult criminals may be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for juveniles because of their lack of development and potential for change.
Based on that argument, California passed a law in 2012 allowing juvenile lifers to ask a judge for reduced sentences of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole. But the multistep process doesn’t guarantee a hearing, and California’s justices ruled last year that it therefore fails to meet the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Senators this spring approved a bill by Democratic state Sens. Ricardo Lara and Holly Mitchell to bring California law in line with the high court’s rulings. It has a good chance of passing the state Assembly later this summer. It would require that offenders sentenced as juveniles be automatically considered for parole during their 25th year in prison. About three dozen offenders would be eligible for hearings over the next three years, though there’s no guarantee they’d be paroled.
The California District Attorneys Association opposes the bill, saying it’s unfair to retroactively allow the same 25-year minimum penalty for no-parole felons as for those sentenced to lesser terms of 25-to-life.
No-parole sentences were the presumptive penalty for many murders committed by teenagers in California, though state law gives prosecutors and judges some discretion. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based reform group, counts 283 inmates serving life without parole in California for crimes committed as minors; state prison officials put the count at 268. California ranks fourth behind Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan, the group found.
Corrections officials could not say how many offenders have been resentenced, but Elizabeth Calvin, with New York-based Human Rights Watch, estimates that about 50 offenders have had their sentences reduced and seven have been released. Thirty percent of Californians serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers are black, more than four times their concentration in California’s population, according to an Associated Press analysis of inmate data provided by state corrections officials.
For now, petitions for resentencing hearings are handled differently from county to county and even between judges in the same courthouse.
The Juvenile Innocence & Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles has two similar clients, each now in his 40s and each sentenced to life without parole at age 17 for a homicide involving “a robbery that went wrong and a gun that went off,” said clinic director Christopher Hawthorne.
They both had trouble-free records in the same state prison. But the one who committed his crime in Los Angeles County was resentenced and has since been paroled, while the petition was denied in neighboring San Bernardino County, a more traditionally conservative area.
“Justice by geography,” Hawthorne called it. “Much of it has to do with which judge you’re in front of.”
In Taylor’s case, attorneys argue that the courts failed to recognize that he was neglected, then abandoned, by a single alcoholic mother; that his older brother, and only sibling, was already behind bars; or that he was subjected to peer pressure the night he shot Shadden twice in Long Beach.
“As far as I can tell he is a model prisoner and is as rehabilitated as one can imagine,” said Michael Risher, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Taylor.
The state attorney general’s office countered that the now 40-year-old Taylor would likely again face a no-parole sentence, since the trial judge described him as “the ringleader” who carried a loaded gun, demonstrating “intent, premeditation, and deliberation.”
The state Supreme Court in June ordered state corrections officials to respond with any objections to Taylor being resentenced. If he becomes eligible for parole he could be freed as early as next year, 25 years after his arrest, Risher said. He never sought resentencing under the 2012 law and didn’t have to, based on a previous decision by the justices in a different case, Risher said.
The ACLU is asking the state Supreme Court to clarify how offenders like Taylor can get legal help to file for resentencing. It’s even more difficult for offenders with mental health, language or other barriers, said Calvin, the Human Watch advocate Rights.
“This means that the individuals who are the most vulnerable are the least likely to benefit,” Calvin said in an email.