Wednesday, September 01, 2010

People v. Mendez (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 1, 2010)

I'm impressed.

As I started to read the opinion, I was thinking that this was going to be a classic Court of Appeal opinion in a criminal case. Especially since the defendant, Victor Mendez, is hardly a nice guy. He's in a gang. Has been for a while. Went on a crime spree on the night of June 30, 2007, robbing a lot of people at gunpoint alongside others in his gang. Not someone you really want to keep out on the streets.

Sure, he was only 16 when he committed the crimes, and his sentence was pretty long -- 85 years. So Mendez has a tolerable argument that this sentence is essentially LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) -- which the Supreme Court held was unconstitutional for minors -- since the first time he'll be even eligible for parole is when he's 88 years old, which is well past even the life expectancy for someone who's not living in prison.

But it'd have been so, so easy for the Court of Appeal to simply say: "But the sentence here was not LWOP. Parole's an option, albeit when he's 88. Maybe he'll live that long. Who knows? The Supreme Court only held that LWOP is unconstitutional, and this ain't that." And truthfully, that is exactly what I thought the opinion would say, in reasoning precisely that shallow.

But it didn't. Justice Doi Todd instead writes a cogent, coherent opinion that explores this issue meaningfully, ultimately holding that, yep, the sentence may well be unconstitutional, remanding the case back down to the trial court to reconsider the sentence.

It's an unusual case. On the one hand, we've got a person who's lived essentially his entire life as a gangbanger. On the other hand, that entire life's been lived as a minor, and he's never known something else. Who knows that the guy will be like at 50 or 60? There's a strong tug to say we can't just ignore the prospect of rehabilitation and require the guy to be locked up even if, in 40 years, he becomes Mahatma Gandhi. Just doesn't seem fair.

Plus, it's not like Mendez killed anyone. Or even tried to. His offenses were simply robbery. A carjacking, to be sure. And with a gun. But stealing property. While that's bad, especially given the consequences to the victim, and particularly when someone gets hurt during the process, but it's not like we haven't seen much, much worse. Finally, we're also dealing with a trial court that was really throwing the book at the guy -- who could easily have made the sentences concurrent, but instead made 'em consecutive as a means of ensuring that Mendez never, ever walked out of prison.

So an unusual case. And unusual result. To the credit of the authors, IMHO.